Changing the narrative, Newark moves to reconstruct a downtown greenspace by replacing slave owners and colonizers with a historic American veteran, emancipator.
On a late evening last June, the City of Newark removed their signature Christopher Columbus statue at Washington Square Park. The extraction was in the midst of growing protests across the country to rid of statues and monuments connected to America’s brutal colonial and slaveholding past.
Newark’s mayor, Ras Baraka, announced that in the place of Columbus, an effigy of famed Black abolitionist and Civil War hero, Harriet Tubman, would be erected. He also said that the city would rename Washington Square Park after Tubman. Currently, the park honors the nation’s first president and slave owner, George Washington.
In concert with Newark’s Arts and Cultural Affairs, the city held an open-call artists’ contest to offer designs for the Tubman monument.
Following a call for proposals, a fourteen-member jury of art experts, historians, as well as community members selected five acclaimed finalists and their designs: Abigail DeVille: “Harriet’s Bridge;” Dread Scott: “Keep Going;” Jules Arthur: “Freedom Train;” Nina Cooke John: “Shadow of a Face;” Vinnie Bagwell: “Harriet Tubman on the Road to Freedom.”
Newark’s Arts and Cultural Affairs Director, Fayemi Shakur states, “I am overwhelmed by the powerful designs put forth by this group of esteemed artists.”
Shakur continues, “This is a valuable opportunity for the Newark community to engage with the city’s history and embrace the possibilities of what public art can do when considering ideas like representation, history and design.”
Along with the selection committee’s choice, Newark residents can provide feedback on the final design. “We want Newark residents to become involved in this process and tell us which designs they like best,” explained Mayor Ras Baraka. “This monument will reflect how Newark honors one of our great pioneers and warriors, and therefore it should in turn reflect the views of our residents.”
In order to be reviewed by the selection committee, all feedback from Newark residents must be submitted by May 24, 2021.
The removal of the Columbus statue signifies the drastic shift in the city. Originally, the Lenni Lenape nation and other native groups lived on the land until Dutch settlers relocated from what is today called the state of Connecticut. The Dutch established New Ark in 1666.
Eventually, more Europeans migrated such as the British who colonized the area through violence and land theft. Other European immigrants would follow. Germans arrived in large numbers then Irish, Spanish, Portuguese and Italians. The latter three would be the last large European immigrant groups to situate themselves in Newark.
Still, the remnants of Ireland, Spain, and Portugal’s settlers are most prominent in Ironbound, an enclave located in Newark’s East Ward.
The Columbus statue was a gift from its Italian residents and their descendants. The monument titled, Christopher Columbus: Immortal Genoese, has been up since Oct. 12, 1997. Amidst the contentious racial climate following national Black Lives Matter demonstrations against racial injustice and police brutality, the City silently removed the bronze sculpture to thwart it being toppled. A second Columbus statue was taken down in the city shortly thereafter, but that action was taken by private citizens.
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The work of sculptor Giuseppe Ciochetti, the statue was said to “[depict] the commissioning, embarkation, voyage, and landing of Columbus. Each corner of the base…adorned with a standing female figure representing discovery.”
However, a controversial figure often thought to represent inhumane colonization, many Columbus statues across the country have been stripped down citing the terror, rape, and pillaging of Native and Africans at the hands of the Italian conquistador. The presence of Columbus and others represented the opposite of the socio-political movements seeking to advance communities of color.
Juxtaposing the darkened history of colonialism with that of the image and reputation of Harriet Tubman, the decision to rename the square aligns itself more with the city’s population. For over a decade, Tubman conducted over 19 trips, guiding dozens of enslaved women, men and children to free territories in the US. One of the safe houses she used was located in downtown Newark, on Central Avenue and Washington Avenue. Just two blocks from the park that will soon bear her name; the space is now owned by Rutgers University.
Since the 1960s, Newark has had a Black-majority population who are descendants of those once enslaved. While most Blacks moved to the area during the Great Exodus, marking a mass migration of African Americans from the south to north, their presence in Newark reshaped the post-industrial metro. More pointedly, the 1968 unrest sparked a part of a Black consciousness movement dealing with socio-economic and political issues. Now, Newark is known as a home for art, culture, and revolution.
- Abigail DeVille was born in 1981 in New York City. Maintaining a long-standing interest in marginalized people and places, she creates site-specific immersive installations and large sculptures designed to bring attention to these forgotten stories. Her most recent exhibition was “Light of Freedom,” Madison Square Park Conservancy (2020).
- Dread Scott is a visual artist whose work has been exhibited at the Whitney Museum and Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 facility. In 2019, 350 people marched on levees on the outskirts of New Orleans as part of his community-engaged artwork Slave Rebellion Reenactment (2019), which reenacted the largest rebellion of enslaved people in US history. He is also the recipient of a 2021 Guggenheim Fellowship Award.
- Jules Arthur was born in St. Louis, and moved to New York City to attend The School of Visual Arts where he received a B.F.A. with honors in 1999. He creates visual testimonies to the lives and legacies of those who have had a significant cultural impact. His work features a range of distinguished figures—athletes, activists, abolitionists, musicians, tradesmen, and blue-collar workers—each one of them illuminated through his detailed artistry.
- Nina Cooke John is the founding principal of Studio Cooke John Architecture and Design, a multidisciplinary design studio that values placemaking as a way to transform relationships between people and the built environment. Working at the scale of the human body; individually or collectively, in the home or on the street, responding to how we use space in our everyday lives, whether in the family unit or as a community.
- Vinnie Bagwell is an American representational-figurative sculptor who uses bas-relief techniques as visual narratives to expend her storytelling, giving deeper meaning to the legacies of marginalized people of color. She created the first sculpture of a contemporary African-American woman to be commissioned by a municipality in 1996 and has won numerous public-art commissions and awards around the United States.
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