‘I’m Trying to Understand the Visual World Around Me’: Watch Fred Wilson Connect His Multi-Racial Family Background Through His Practice

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Fred Wilson, courtesy of More Art.

Take a stroll through downtown Brooklyn this summer and you’ll encounter an ornate roadblock dead in the middle of Columbus Park plaza. A complex and rather beautiful wrought-iron cage stands in the midst of the walkway, fencing in three elaborate boxes containing busts of African figures.

The installation is the work of artist Fred Wilson—his first large-scale public sculpture ever—and is titled Mind Forged Manacles/Manacle Forged MindsThe work’s name references poet William Blake‘s notion of “mind-forg’d manacles”: the self-imposed constraints that limit one’s growth and creativity. It also alludes to the scourge of incarceration that disproportionately affects Black, Native American, and Latinx people.

Organized by More Art, a nonprofit organization that spent more than two years working with Wilson to realize the installation, the location for Mind Forged Manacles/Manacle Forged Minds is more “site conscious” than “site specific,” as it stands between statues of Henry Ward Beecher, a renowned abolitionist, and Christopher Columbus—probing questions of what freedom really means in the context of history and American life in 2022.

Installation view, Fred Wilson's Mind Forged Manacles/Manacle Forged Minds (2022) at Columbus Park. Courtesy of More Art.

Installation view, Fred Wilson’s Mind Forged Manacles/Manacle Forged Minds (2022) at Columbus Park. Courtesy of More Art.

Wilson has long focused his artistic practice on bringing ready-made works together, creating conversations by juxtaposing disparate objects and art, often mining the archives of museums to create new presentations that question the traditional historical narrative. In an exclusive interview with Art21 filmed back in 2005, Wilson explained how his multi-racial family background influences his perspective.

Growing up, he said in the video, he was the only Black kid in his entire school. “My connection to the Black community was tangential for those formative years,” he said. “A lot of my project is trying to understand the visual world around me, which really affects me.” For the artist, whose family includes relatives from the West Indies, Belgium, India, and China, “it’s difficult for me to not look at people in the world and see everyone as a relative”

Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s series Art in the Twenty-First Century, below. Fred Wilson’s “Mind Forged Manacles/Manacle Forged Minds” is on view at Columbus Park through June 2023.

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of news-making artists. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series, like New York Close Up and Extended Play, and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.

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