Last year, the city of Philadelphia found itself under fire when it announced plans to erect a Harriet Tubman monument designed by Wesley Wofford, a white male artist selected without an open call for other proposals.
In response, the city agreed to restart the project from scratch and has now shared five semifinalists designs—all by Black artists, according to Philadelphia Magazine.
“This is unfolding at a time when the teaching of Black history is under attack,” Faye Anderson, a Philadelphia historian, told Hyperallergic. “Any opportunity we get to tell the story, we should take advantage of.”
The city’s Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy unveiled the proposals—from Vinnie Bagwell, Richard Blake, Tanda Francis, Alvin Pettit, and Basil Watson—last week at a virtual public meeting. The public is welcome to submit feedback in an online survey through September 1.
A city-appointed African-American Statue Advisory Committee will handle the final selection process and announce a winner in October.
The original plan would have featured a version of Wofford’s touring sculpture The Harriet Tubman — The Journey to Freedom, which went on view in Philadelphia in January 2022. The city commissioned a new work by the artist to the tune of $500,000 due to what it described as the overwhelmingly positive public response to the temporary exhibition.
But when the city held a public meeting about the planned monument last June, the backlash was undeniable. The public demanded that the designs of historically underrepresented Black and women artists be considered for any Tubman memorial. Though the city initially held fast in its decision, by August it had announced plans to return to the drawing board with an open call, which attracted 50 submissions.
Bagwell has envisioned a a nine-foot bronze of Tubman in her youth, when she would have arrived in Philadelphia—with the faces of others who escaped slavery and prominent abolitionists carved in relief on her billowing skit. It is titled Harriet Tubman, City of Liberty.
Blake poses Tubman with the Liberty Bell, holding up a lantern symbolizing lighting the path to freedom.
Pettit chose to honor Tubman’s military service—she was the first woman in U.S. history to lead a major military operation—sculpting her carrying a rifle in the 1863 Combahee Ferry Raid.Al
Francis has proposed 12-foot tall sculpture of Tubman’s face, surrounded by intersecting silhouettes, titled Together in Freedom.
Watson’s design, titled Keep Going, attempts to capture the harrowing nature of the journey out of slavery, his 13-foot-tall Tubman leading three others struggling uphill.
“I want to depict the energy, drama, fight, fear, and the horror of the journey and awaken the viewer to the level of bravery, courage, strength and intelligence that Harriett had to display,” the artist said in a statement.
Though the five finalists are not well-known blue-chip artists, they all have designed public monuments to historic African American figures.
Pettit’s statue of civil rights leader Mary Jane McLeod Bethune was unveiled in her namesake park in Jersey City in 2021.
Watson’s public works include a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. at the Hudgens Center in Atlanta and a forthcoming monument to desegregation at the University of South Carolina.
Francis is the artist behind Philadelphia’s planned Marian Anderson monument, Freedom Rings, outside the Academy of Music. She was also a finalist for New York’s still-forthcoming Shirley Chisholm monument, which is being built by Amanda Williams and Olalekan B. Jeyifous.
Bagwell is designing a monument in New York’s Central Park replacing a statue of J. Marion Sims, a pioneering gynecologist who conducted experiments on enslaved women. She was chosen for the project after another selection controversy, in which a committee of art world professionals chose a design by Simone Leigh, who ultimately withdrew in deference to the community’s preference for Bagwell’s design.
Just this week, the town of Great Barrington in Massachusetts selected Blake’s sculpture for a new W.E.B. Du Bois monument. (Bagwell was also a finalist for that project.)
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