J. Marion Sims, sometimes referred to as the “father of modern gynecology,” was a 19th-century doctor who conducted brutal, nonconsensual experimental surgeries on enslaved Black women without using anesthesia. A monument for the surgeon stood in Central Park for 80 years, across the New York Academy of Medicine on 103rd Street, until it was finally removed in April of 2018.
Responding to protests against the monument in the summer of 2017, the City of New York finally relocated the sculpture to Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, where it was historically contextualized with informational plaques. In December of that year, the City published an open call for artists to propose works that would replace the controversial monument. The chosen finalists are some of today’s most prominent artists: Simone Leigh, Wangechi Mutu, Kehinde Wiley, and Vinnie Bagwell. The public has a chance to weigh in on the proposals by sending feedback to the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs’s “Percent for Art” program by tomorrow, October 4.
Vinnie Bagwell, “Victory Beyond Sims”
Bagwell’s sculpture is an 18-foot-high bronze victory monument depicting a winged woman holding the serpent-entwined Staff of Asclepius (the Greek god of medicine) in one hand, and an eternal flame the another. Portraits of women, who appear to be Sims’s victims, are engraved on the bottom half of the sculpture. “In broad daylight, a majestic angel shall be seen by progressives as a beacon in increasingly populist times,” the artist describes the sculpture in her proposal. “Viewers [sic] minds shall be quickened and their spirits lifted by her presence.”
Simone Leigh, “After Anarcha, Lucy, Betsey, Henrietta, Laure, and Anonymous”
Leigh’s bronze sculpture features a resting figure of a Black woman draped in a fabric that recalls African traditions of dress. The sculpture is enclosed in a frame of holly shrubs, which will be surrounded by a carpet of bluebells every spring. The figure’s resting position, according to Leigh, references “a position originally used to give western painters the freedom to display the female figure by using the body of a woman of color as a proxy.” The reclining figure, she adds, is “a contemporary response to a dearth of representation of black beauty in Western Art.” The sculpture is named after some of the women abused in Sims’s experimentations: Anarcha, Lucy, Betsey, Henrietta, Laure, and a nod to his unidentified victims, “Anonymous.” The flora surrounding the sculpture, Leigh writes, is “a constantly changing glorification of the black body as monument through the four seasons.”
Wangechi Mutu, “To Raise a dead Giraffe”
Mutu’s “To Raise a dead Giraffe” (which is a working title) is based on a drawing she made of a human seated upon the body of a large slain animal. The bodies are merged together, shrouded in “a membrane that wraps around the human like a veil and covers the animal like its very own sheet of skin,” in Mutu’s words. In this work, Mutu draws a connection between Sims’s experiments and the colonial assault on African bodies. “The rape, the forced breeding, the hand and body mutilations, the cruel and unnecessary scientific experiments and medical malpractice were rife,” she writes. The slaughtered animal is a comment on the phenomenon of trophy hunting in Africa, an activity generally attributed to wealthy men from the West. “I hope this large and majestic slain animal with its avatar delivers a change in how we treat one another and brings an end to the particular feelings of superiority and authority over others that have led to the destruction of so many lives and of the Earth,” Mutu writes.
Kehinde Wiley, “Untitled”
Wiley, who recently unveiled his Bronze monument “Rumors of War” (2019) in Time Square in New York City, has proposed a bronze sculpture the would be placed atop of the bare pedestal of the removed sculpture. Wiley’s proposal borrows from his previous work “Bound” (2014), which shows three women bound together by their hair. If selected, this new iteration would feature three unnamed doctors dressed in armor. “This new monument will at once specifically honor these three women while also honoring their community of colleagues, whose hard work continues to improve the lives of the citizens of the City of New York, the country, and our shared world,” Wiley writes in his proposal. “The three doctors will be sculpted dressed in armor, as an homage to the brilliance and power of the Black American women who have been pillars throughout Wiley’s life,” the artist’s proposal reads.