Nina Cooke John's "Shadow of a Face" (2023) monument memorializing Harriet Tubman and Newark's history in the Underground Railroad at Harriet Tubman Square in downtown Newark (all photos by Cesar Melgar, courtesy City of Newark)

This morning, the city of Newark, New Jersey, celebrated the unveiling of a new Harriet Tubman monument. “Shadow of a Face” (2023), installed downtown in Harriet Tubman Square, was designed by artist and New Jersey native Nina Cooke John and pays homage to both Tubman’s and the city’s role in facilitating the Underground Railroad.

The city square, formerly known as Washington Park, was renamed in honor of Harriet Tubman on Juneteenth of 2022. In 2020, an existing statue of Christopher Columbus was removed at the request of Mayor Ras Baraka in anticipation of site-specific conflict unfolding during the Black Lives Matter protests that summer.

“In a time when so many cities are choosing to topple statues that limit the scope of their people’s story, we have chosen to erect a monument that spurs us into our future story of exemplary strength and solidity,” Mayor Baraka said at the unveiling today, March 9. “In a country where the overwhelming majority of monuments are testaments to white males, Newark has chosen to erect a monument to a Black woman who was barely five feet tall, but had the visage and power of a giant.”

Adebunmi Gbadebo with Newark residents’ ceramic mosaic tiles

“Shadow of a Face” references a line from Robert Hayden’s 1962 poem “Runagate Runagate” honoring Harriet Tubman and highlighting the dangerous experience of seeking freedom through the Underground Railroad. The monument is comprised of enormous welded intersecting outlines of Tubman’s figure with her arms at her hips at the center of a concrete wraparound structure featuring a carving of Tubman’s face. A separate wraparound circles the back of the monument, made up of panels of educational text about Newark’s history in Black liberation and ceramic mosaic tiles created by Newark residents to cement their presence in this historic moment.

Residents were also invited to share recordings of their personal stories of liberation to be included in a permanent, on-site audio clip that complements the monument, creating a multi-sensory experience that brings Newark’s Black history, present, and future to the forefront.

Cooke John often creates works at the intersection of design and architecture. In an interview with PBS, she expressed her aim of engaging visitors with the sculpture on a physical level.

“What I’m hoping for is for people to really connect with Harriet Tubman on a personal level and see her more as an everyday person who did heroic things,” Cooke John said. “They can walk around the monument, they can touch her face — it can be something that they can be more connected to.”

Handlers bringing the welded figurative outline to Harriet Tubman Square for the monument’s assembly

Cooke John’s proposal was selected in June 2021 during a national open call. The project was led by City of Newark Arts and Cultural Affairs Director fayemi shakur and was funded by the city, the Mellon Foundation, Audible (headquartered at the square), and individual residents through a variety of Newark arts and culture organizations.

Audible developed the audio component of the monument and will enable users to listen free of charge by adding the segments to the Audible Places app later this Spring. The Newark Museum of Art will host a public program called Community Day: Her Story/Our Story to celebrate the monument this Saturday, March 11.

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