“Space is power. When a Black body in bronze is placed publicly, that story is magnified because of the powerful space”.
The removing of Confederate statues during the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests against racial injustice that swiped across the US and many countries around the world brought renewed attention to the importance of national public monuments, very few of which were made by Black sculptors.
Empty pedestals have inspired debates over who and what should replace the toppled statues. Black sculptors and historians hope the aftermath will give communities around the country a chance to honour often-forgotten African American pioneers.
Specifically, of the more than 5,000 public outdoor sculptures registered in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Art Inventories Catalog, less than a quarter of the 700 works in the “Ethnic-African American” category were made by Black sculptors.
Dana King of Oakland, American sculptor but also a broadcast journalist, pursued her passion in sculpting and art. Her outdoor sculpture commemorating the Montgomery bus boycott is displayed at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, and she is one of the artists who commented the lack of Black sculptors’ statues in America.
“It allows children to look up into the faces of these sculptures and say, ‘Who are you? And why are you standing before me?’” inquired King, who is set to unveil in September her public sculpture of William Lanson, a formerly enslaved Black man who worked to extend New Haven’s Long Wharf, making the Connecticut port competitive with nearby New York.
Similarly, fewer than half of the 75 U.S. works included in “Contemporary Monuments to the Slave Past,” a website run by University of Maryland Professor Renee Ater, were created by Black sculptors.
“Part of the reason I went into figurative sculpture was to create works of art that represented people who look like me and look like a lot of New Yorkers who I see but I didn’t see represented,” explained sculptor Branly Cadet, who is a classically trained American artist that renders the human form in the realist tradition, but considers himself a modernist who enjoys exploring the remix by combining the human figure with modernist strategies including text, abstraction, metaphor, ergonomics, space, and lighting.
Black sculptors embrace a perspective that a white artist cannot say Cadet, whose public statues highlight figures including New York Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who fought for pay equity, and star athlete Jackie Robinson, who broke Major League Baseball’s colour barrier.
“Statues and monuments reflect who and what we value as a nation,” University of Pittsburgh historian Keisha Blain pointed out. “Building a racism-free society requires making an active choice.”
Unfortunately, winning public art commissions is a long-lasting, competitive and often controversial process chosen by elected officials and influenced by powerbrokers ranging from real estate developers to political clubs.
It took more than a decade of delays and debates for Savannah, Georgia, whose population is 50% Black, to reveal in 2002 its first statue acknowledging its history as a major slave port.
Disputes raged over the memorial’s graphic inscription about slave ship terrors, as well as about the selected sculptor - a white professor from the prestigious Savannah College of Art and Design, a private art school with locations in Savannah, Atlanta, and France.
Cadet’s insight into African American past helped him win a commission for a memorial outside Philadelphia’s City Hall honouring Octavius Catto, exposed in 2017 as the first public monument to an African American individual in a city where the population is more than 40% Black.
Catto had an array of achievements, but Cadet was struck by Catto’s push to de-segregate horse-drawn trolley cars and to ratify the 15th Amendment to let Black men vote.
“As an African American, I thought it was critical to highlight those two aspects of his existence,” declared Cadet, 54.
The brutal murder of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed in Minneapolis in May after a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, has inspired momentum to a years-long movement to remove Confederate monuments and other U.S. public statues that critics say promote white supremacy and racial violence.
In America, the Southern Poverty Law Center revealed that about 800 Confederate monuments stand at county courthouses, town squares, state capitals and other public spaces, including 34 memorials dedicated after 2000.
Since June 2015, when white supremacist and Confederate flag enthusiast Dylan Roof gunned down a Bible study group at a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, massacring nine people, 48 Confederate monuments have been removed, some under public protest, the Law Center added.
Pittsburgh’s Blain says that, while eliminating symbols of oppression is essential, memorializing Black lives in public is an important first step in the struggle to build a racism-free society, which ultimately requires concrete changes to laws and public policy.
Artists, like sculptor King, say it would be far more significant to let the resounding absence of statues in the wake of the protests catch the public’s eye.
“All that space should be left alone for a while.
“We should sit with the raw sense of discomfort from the space leftover from those torn down monuments, and the energy they left behind,” concluded King.