After years of studying public sculptures across the U.S. to better understand how these monuments tell the story of our nation’s history, Monument Lab, a public art nonprofit based in Philadelphia, has just erected six of its own on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Titled “Pulling Together,” the temporary exhibition, curated by Monument Lab’s Paul Farber and Rutgers University–Newark professor Salamishah Tillet, features new work by Derrick Adams, Wendy Red Star, Paul Ramírez Jonas, Vanessa German, Tiffany Chung, and Ashon T. Crawley.
It is the first curated outdoor exhibition on the mall—and the first phase of the organization’s new public art initiative “Beyond Granite,” which hopes to bring more inclusive, equitable, and representative commemorative artworks to the heart of the capitol.
“The mall remains a symbol of our Democratic ideals as a nation. ‘Beyond Granite: Pulling Together’ does not shy away from those aspects in our history that can be very hurtful to Americans. We must tell those untold stories fiercely,” Charles Sams, director of National Park Service, said at the exhibition’s unveiling. “We are only stronger by our diversity. Without it, ecosystems collapse.”
Founded in 2012 by Farber and Ken Lum, Monument Lab rose to new prominence in the wake of the George Floyd protests, which saw activists vandalize and forcibly remove Confederate monuments. The question of what to do with public memorials with problematic histories sparked a nationwide debate and numerous court battles—and also prompted a wider reevaluation of who is honored in town squares across the country.
The philanthropic organization’s $4 million research grant allowed Monument Lab to conduct a comprehensive audit of national, state, and local monuments in the U.S. What it found was of the 50 most-memorialized figures, 42 were white men, and 25 owned slaves.
In organizing “Pulling Together,” Farber and Tillet aimed to create monuments that would honor the untold stories that have been left out of America’s public landscapes, showcasing them alongside famed memorials to the Founding Fathers and those who have fought on behalf of America.
The artist selected for the project represent a diverse group—three Black, one Latino, one Asian, one Native American, and half of them women.
At the Lincoln Memorial, German pays homage to the renowned Black singer Marian Anderson, who famously performed in concert at the monument, back in 1939, when the nation’s capitol was still segregated. The sculpture incorporates historical photographs of the event, as well as steel Sandhof lilies, native to Africa, and blue bottles that make up the singer’s skirt, as a reference to their spiritual significance to enslaved Africans who lived on the Gullah in the Lowcountry.
Anderson was also the point of inspiration for Jonas, who has created a carillon sculpture titled Let Freedom Ring with 32 automated bells that play “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”—part of the set list for her performance. The public is invited to ring a 600-pound bell beneath the tower to sound the final note in the song.
Another interactive project is Adams’s America’s Playground: DC, a functional children’s jungle gym also meant to recall the history of segregation. One half of the piece is brightly colored, the other in shades of gray, bisected by a historical photograph of Black and white children playing together at a D.C. playground just days after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling Bolling v. Sharpe declared it unconstitutional to segregate D.C. schools.
For Adams, installing a playground at the heart of U.S. politics is also symbolic. “It’s a place where you have to learn negotiation,” he told the Washington Post. “It’s a place where you have to learn to take turns. It’s a place where you understand leadership, and take risks.”
For the Living, Tiffany Chung’s installation next to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, is a monumental world map dedicated to Southeast Asian immigrants and refugees, tracing their diaspora due to the war.
Red Star’s piece, The Soil You See…, draws a parallel between the Apsáalooke (Crow) Nation chiefs who signed U.S. government treaties and the 56 signatories of the Declaration of Independence, by placing a large sculpture of a thumbprint on which she’s inscribed the names of those Indigenous leaders near the mall’s Declaration of Independence Memorial.
“What I noticed is that there really isn’t any color represented on the Mall,” the artist told the Post. “That was surprising to me. Everything is, like, the color of the natural materials the monuments are made of. So my thumbprint is red.”
Finally, there is Crawley’s HOMEGOING, an audiovisual memorial to the victims of the AIDS crisis located on the site of the first display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt in 1987. A writer and musician, the artist has installed speakers amid a series of small stages that play a three-movement composition that incorporates music from Black churches, as a tribute to Black queer musicians, as well as a reading of the names of some of those who have died from AIDS.
“Beyond Granite: Pulling Together” is on view at various locations on the National Mall, Washington, D.C., August 18–September 18, 2023.
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