The vision for gender parity in public art just became a whole lot clearer.
Today, New York City announced five preliminary artist proposals for a new monument honoring America’s first Black congresswoman, Shirley Chisholm. Finalists for the project include Firelei Báez, La Vaughn Belle, Mickalene Thomas, Tanda Francis, and a joint project by Amanda Williams and Olalekan Jeyifous.
The Shirley Chisholm monument is the first commission by She Built NYC, an initiative aiming to rectify the public art gender gap by creating more statuary devoted to female historical figures. The process began in June 2018 with an open nominations call, which later funneled through an advisory committee that delivered a list of recommendations to municipal officials. Ultimately, First Lady Chirlaine McCray and then-Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen chose to honor Chisholm with the program’s first statue — a decision that ignored the committee’s recommendation that the program honor groups instead of individuals.
Two weeks ago, She Built NYC announced four new honorees who will receive statues in the future, including jazz singer Billie Holiday in Queens; Civil Rights leader Elizabeth Jennings Graham in Manhattan; public health pioneer Dr. Helen Rodríguez Trías in the Bronx; and lighthouse keeper Katherine Walker on Staten Island.
Currently, only 3 percent of the city’s sculptures honor female historical figures. That’s 5 monuments devoted to women compared to the 150 statues for men.
“Shirley Chisholm, a true daughter of Brooklyn, born of West Indian immigrants who settled in Bedford-Stuyvesant, was one of this nation’s greatest dreamers,” said Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams in a statement. “A monument of this magnitude, dedicated to the first person in 192 years to embody the triple threat of being Black, a woman, and a representative of Congress, is most deserving of this lasting recognition. It is long overdue.”
Renderings for the five proposals display an eclectic mixture of architecture assemblage, amphitheater seating, and larger-than-life statuary. Artists were selected by an initial Percent for Art panel in January; a second panel by the organization will select a finalist who will refine their design before presenting it to the local community board and submitting it to the Public Design Commission later this year. Up to $1 million will be available for the commissioning monument. The commission is anticipated for completion by the end of 2020 and will be installed at the Parkside entrance to Prospect Park in Brooklyn. The public is invited to submit comments about the monument on through March 31 by following this link.
Images and artist statements are posted below:
“The monument to Shirley Chisholm proposed by artist Firelei Báez is comprised of a series of hand-painted metal columns that collectively shape-shift into three respective portraits of the trailblazing legislator and first African American presidential candidate. Like a lenticular panel whose image changes when viewed from different angles, from each of three vantage points, this traversable forest of flower-like posts will transform into varying representations of Shirley Chisholm. As the viewer walks around the sculpture, the partial images painted onto each of the posts’ three sides will coalesce into distinct portraits when viewed from specific perspectives. Each of the three portraits represent a different aspect of Chisholm’s public role and accomplishments.
“Báez creates Chisholm’s three representations incorporating hand-painted imagery tied to inherited Afrodiasporic narratives. Two of the portraits liken Chisholm’s characteristics to those of Orishas, human embodiments of elemental spirits from the Yoruba tradition, while the third incorporates the Pan-African flag. When viewed aerially, the beams of Chisholm’s monument are arranged into the form of Sankofa, the West African symbol of a bird which reaches back to move forward and construct our future.
“The proposed monument will be an accumulation of hand-painted, vertical steel columns, each measuring approximately 10-15 feet in height and anchored into a poured concrete foundation covered with pavers. A point of inspiration for this sculpture’s form is the monument to Nelson Mandela in Howick, South Africa.”
La Vaughn Belle
“This proposal reinterprets Shirley Chisholm’s famous quote, ‘If they don’t give you a seat at the table bring a folding chair’ and positions it into a larger framework of mobility. This monument invites visitors to not only think about Chisholm’s personal journey from childhood to elderhood, but also the movement of a people and a nation. For what her historic run for the presidency challenges most is our imaginary of what is possible. Wearing a turban and an eagle pin, she steps boldly into a re-envisioned version of the presidential seal. She challenges us to think about how this petite black woman with a Bajan accent marking her immigrant roots, could represent the promise of the United States both literally and symbolically and how her trail -to use her campaign slogan- could ‘bring U.S. together’.”
“While many were beginning to organize the fight for America to live up to its promise that ‘all men are created equal’, Shirley Chisholm’s trailblazing life prompted us to consider the equality of all of humanity.
“Chisholm Trail Memorial is a bold and timeless dedication to Shirley Chisholm, supported by her own powerful words. Her inspiring quotes are embedded into the ground of the sidewalk leading to the Ocean Avenue entrance of Prospect Park. This trail tempers visitors to the mindset of this great woman as they approach her monumental bronze representation framed by vertical jets of water and light. Chisholm Trail is a colossal dedication which the people of New York City and the world will seek out and know of our commitment to honoring the women who helped build New York.”
“Prospect Park is known as Brooklyn’s Backyard. The sculpture that inspires me is one that reflects the breadth of Shirley Chisholm’s impact and also illustrates her as a woman who was deeply in touch with the people of the Brooklyn community.
“In the current political and cultural landscape, art is about accessibility and immersive experiences. Rather than portraying Shirley standing at a podium and speaking down to her audience, this model will instead show her rooted in the peoples’ space and speaking to their truths.
“Shirley’s figure will be created at human-scale and seated at the viewers’ level so that audiences can engage with her. The car on which she’ll sit not only captures a moment in time, but it also emphasizes the social relationships of the community – this will be a space for people to congregate. The surrounding environment will have dual purpose benches/planters and in them the plant life will be selected to reference Shirley’s Caribbean heritage.
“By employing a nontraditional sculpture to depict a nontraditional force, the monument is meant to highlight the fortitude of both Shirley Chisholm and the people she represents. This is ultimately about the visibility of everyone in the community.”
Amanda Williams & Olalekan Jeyifous
“We have created a monument to Shirley Chisholm that celebrates her legacy as a civil servant who ‘left the door open’ to make a space for others to follow in her path toward equity and a place in our country’s political landscape. Depending upon your vantage point and approach to the Ocean Avenue entrance, you can see Ms. Chisholm’s silhouette inextricably intertwined with the iconic dome of the U.S. Capitol building. This mashup symbolizes how she disrupted the perception of who has the right to occupy such institutions and to be an embodiment for democracy. This trailblazing woman was not diminutive. This monument represents how Chisholm’s collaborative ideals were larger than herself. The ground plane is carved in a shape that mimics the amphitheater like style of Congressional seating. Each seat pays homage to those who came after Ms. Chisholm as well as leaves room for those who have yet to come.”
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.