In the epicenter of Brooklyn’s criminal justice system, Fred Wilson’s new installation, Mind Forged Manacles/Manacle Forged Minds, provides a bold counterbalance to the symbols of White supremacy surrounding it. Commissioned by More Art and cleverly placed at Columbus Park, the New York artist’s first public artwork portrays six 3D-printed figurative sculptures in two ornate cages made of wrought iron and steel. Summoning the ghosts of enslaved African and West Indian people who once landed at the Manhattan harbor, Wilson examines the lineage of entrapment and surveillance that still plagues Black Americans, hearkening back to Downtown Brooklyn’s historic role as a sanctuary city before emancipation.
Named after a phrase from a William Blake poem, Mind Forged Manacles refers to a duality of barriers, either imposed by others or self-imposed, to make a greater commentary on racism in the United States. Much like Blake’s speaker, Wilson’s imprisoned Africans peel back layers of history as they gaze out to pedestrian traffic. The men in these 10-foot-tall holding cells, modeled after ancient African sculptures, appear shocked and forlorn at their condition. One of them rests his head against the curved bars, with tufts of hair protruding outward. Others are gawking at the brass locks and a small elevated bridge connecting the structures.
When viewed from afar, Wilson’s piece appears completely black and two-dimensional — almost monolithic. Up close, however, the colors and dimensions become more evident. Each body bears a different shade of ebony, dark brown, or chestnut, and the many intersecting layers of monochromatic steel form a forest of fencing around them, almost like lavishly designed barbed wire. Presented together, the pieces are a somber reminder of what can be unearthed in New York’s history just by scratching the surface. “The beauty of ironwork sometimes obfuscates its real purpose of security,” Wilson noted during an opening event in June, hinting at carceral elements of gentrification, African artifacts still held in US art institutions, and the artwashing of private prisons.
From their position, Wilson’s figures gaze out to Borough Hall and the Kings County Supreme Court, where Black men are disproportionately prosecuted for petty crime and drug charges. Just outside the court building, a Christopher Columbus memorial ominously surveys the scene. Yet between the enslaved people and the colonial explorer stands a monument to White abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher atop a pedestal, with three enslaved children at his feet. This juxtaposition allows Wilson to challenge not just outwardly violent historical figures but subtle colonial aesthetics still embedded in the city’s more liberal public monuments.
Mind Forged Manacles was not made to be site specific, yet its sterile setting is clearly provocative; on any given day, the park welcomes borough officials, local workers, vendors, tourists, and the area’s unhoused communities. Visitors are encouraged to wander between the cages, though few did so in the two hours I spent contemplating the work. Rather, the people who passed by seemed momentarily taken aback before continuing on their way. Is this indicative of the artist’s effectiveness, or are we as a city still numbed to such contradiction? Wilson’s sublime tribute beckons the greater public to decide for themselves.
Fred Wilson: Mind Forged Manacles/Manacle Forged Minds is on view at Columbus Park (Cadman Plaza South, Johnson Street, Downtown Brooklyn) through June 27, 2023. The project is presented by More Art.