New York City is working on artwork to celebrate the abolition movement, which some critics say is too abstract in a city with very few monuments celebrating blacks with figurative sculptures.
The city’s plans, still under consideration, feature a design by artist Camilla Janan Rasheed, incorporating a message of social justice into Brooklyn’s new $ 15 million park, the benches and boundaries of Abolitionist Place.
The site belongs to a corner of downtown Brooklyn next to 227 Duffield Street, which gained landmark status last year in connection with anti-slavery advocates of the 1800s.
The city’s Public Design Commission said a group of conservationists and activists put together a design plan discussion last January after thinking that the plan should feature statues of abolitionists. However, in September, the city said it was in the process of designing, and this month a legal objection was filed by a critic who asked the judge to consider the city’s approval process.
“We are dissatisfied,” said historian Jacob Morris, who is challenging the Public Design Commission’s decision to review all the permanent monuments in the city’s property. He said the agency violated its own rules when he refused to hear additional public testimony before voting for the $ 689,000 conceptual approval of the project at a meeting in September.
“This is our last resort,” Morris added.
For several years, Morris and others have worked to build a figurative sculpture called “Sisters in Freedom” in the same location in downtown Brooklyn. It honors historically significant black women such as investigative journalist Aida B. Wells and educator and abolitionist Sarah J. Garnett.
When he was the mayor of Brooklyn, New York City Mayor Erik Adams favored a traditional monument that Morris wanted to build. In 2019, Adams wrote to the city authorities, stating that the artwork “further raises these great and empowered women to our consciousness.”
Mayor spokeswoman Amaris Cockfield did not answer questions about where he stands in the decision to pursue a more abstract effort at Abolitionist Place.
City officials said plans to install Rasheed’s work weren’t final yet, and announced that the artist had begun holding an online community engagement session this week to hear her thoughts on design. In addition, the Public Design Commission said it would continue to consider the design and seek public opinion.
“We will hold another hearing about this when we come back for a preliminary review,” Keri Butler, executive director of the agency, said in an email.
An expert in the city’s public design approval process said last fall that the legal challenge to the Commission’s approval was facing a difficult battle.
The legal objection to return the monument to the hearing “seems a bit extreme,” said Michelle H. Bogart, an art historian who specializes in the city’s public works. “He’s trying to force them to change the way they operate, in order to make more public comments.”
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Shahne Lee, whose family has fought to preserve the history of abolitionists in the neighborhood, supports the proceedings. “We hope the Public Design Commission will change their process and become more inclusive of the community,” she said. “Art is a form of expression, but can you raise our concerns?”
The park, where the works of abolitionists are exhibited, is run by the city’s Economic Development Board, and the artists are commissioned by the Department of Culture.
Rashid, a former public school teacher who decorated the façade of the Brooklyn Museum with text-based banners, created a design that included independent sculptures, reliefs of mosaics, and a message of social justice throughout the park.
Kendal Henry, a public art assistant commissioner at the City’s Department of Culture, characterized the artist’s vision as “deeply rooted in collaboration.”
“We welcome the opinions of all who are sincerely interested in working with their neighbors to create the monument,” Henry added in a statement.
Earlier this week, Rasheed interacted with the general public in one of her online sessions, explaining that community opinion would determine many core elements of her installation, such as text. “We can only do this if we can respect each other,” she said.
She later sent a statement to the New York Times stating, “I want to be careful about creating something that invites conversation, rather than stating historical facts.”
She said Morris and others misrepresented her work.
The questions and texts used in the work are “designed to be controversial,” Rashid said. “And I’m happy that this project isn’t the only project we’re working on to abolish in Brooklyn, and it won’t happen in the future.”