FORWARD: Issue #3: Community Safety

Public Art Now

Leading Voices Sharing Public Art of the Moment

Across the full range of materials, styles, and degrees of permanence, public artworks by Black artists have made essential contributions to the built environment and to community spaces. In recent projects executed in the public realm by artists of African descent, we can see the deftness with which they are advancing traditional public art practices in order to speak directly to Black people and respond to our most urgent issues and concerns. These projects speak candidly to white people too, announcing an intention to redress attempts to erase or rewrite the histories of Black people through the nearly exclusive cultivation of the public realm by white architects, planners, and policy makers. Some of the most impactful projects installed since 2019 express the inimitable spirit of the Black aesthetic, design sense, and conceptual approach toward art-making to enrich the public realm and build community. —Amina Cooper, guest curator

01: Brick House

Simone Leigh, Brick House, 2019. A High Line Plinth commission, on view June 2019 – Spring 2021. Photo by Timothy Schenck, courtesy the High Line.

by Simone Leigh

The High Line, New York, NY

2019

Making a perfect monument takes a nuanced understanding of scale, height, location, and meaning. Simone Leigh is an artist who consistently exhibits this understanding, along with a mastery of ceramic art forms and the scholarship of the Black diaspora. Brick House is clear evidence of Leigh’s brilliance in this regard. This 16-foot-tall bronze sculpture, cast from a full-scale clay model, is an amalgamation of traditional African design (the architecture of the Batammaliba community in Togo and the Mousgoum of Chad and Cameroon) and southern Black vernacular imagery. Leigh’s vision of a Black woman adorned in both afro and braid is culturally specific, yet the image’s abstraction lends it a universality. This mesmerizing, sphinxlike form is rendered without eyes, as if simultaneously rejecting the gaze of spectators while possessing an omnipotent vision. The siting of this totally empowered Black female form high above one of the world’s financial and cultural capitals is exalting, bold, and restorative.
Simone Leigh, Brick House, 2019. A High Line Plinth commission, on view June 2019 – Spring 2021. Photo by Timothy Schenck, courtesy the High Line.

02: Light of Freedom

Photo by Andy Romer Photography , commissioned by Madison Square Park Conservancy, New York.

by Abigail DeVille

Madison Square Park, New York, NY

2020

The Statue of Liberty (1886), designed by French sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, is an inherently American monument, a work that has become such a part of the fabric of America’s iconography that it almost doesn’t register as public art. However, for Black and brown people, who have been systemically denied the promises of equality and liberation, the copper sculpture registers as more sardonic than iconic. With Light of Freedom, DeVille has created a new vision of Liberty—which she calls a commemoration of the Black Lives Matter movement—that speaks directly to a Black audience of our ongoing struggle for liberation. The work and its siting refer to the period when a fragment of the Statue of Liberty—the hand holding the torch and flame—was installed in Madison Square Park in an effort to raise funds for its completion. DeVille encases this torch fragment in gilded scaffolding—a clear assertion that liberty is still under construction in America.
True to her tendency to incorporate found objects into her work, DeVille has constructed the torch’s blue flame from painted mannequin arms—a reference to the linked arms of protestors at the marches all over the country last summer, and to the arms-akimbo pose that traditionally signifies the spirit of resistance. Quoting Frederick Douglass in her reflections on this work, DeVille reminds us, “If there is no struggle there is no progress…. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground.”
Top photo by Andy Romer Photography, commissioned by Madison Square Park Conservancy, New York. Bottom photo by Tom Reidy Photography, commissioned by Madison Square Park Conservancy, New York.
Photo by Andy Romer Photography, commissioned by Madison Square Park Conservancy, New York.
Photo by Andy Romer Photography, commissioned by Madison Square Park Conservancy, New York.

03: A Resurrection in Four Stanzas

Quote by Maya Angelou from “Letters to My Daughter” (2008). Photos courtesy April Banks.

by April Banks

Historic Belmar Park, Santa Monica, CA

2021

The distinctive aesthetic and conceptual approaches exhibited in contemporary works by Black public artists are informed by traditions that are cultural and political. One political issue we see Black public artists exploring with urgency acknowledges that public art is about the confluence of public space (land) and form, and concedes that Black people’s relationship with land and space in America has been and continues to be fraught. We are seeing these themes explored in works that contemplate redlining, gentrification, racial mob violence, eminent domain, and political tools created to intentionally displace and destabilize Black communities.
April Banks’ powerful new work A Resurrection in Four Stanzas examines these themes in a manner that reveals a technical and emotional brilliance. Her sculpture recalls the shotgun house, ubiquitous in the Black South and in the places to which Black families migrated in search of promised lands. Specifically, the work pays homage to Black homes seized by eminent domain and destroyed by white developers in Santa Monica in the 1950s. Her design, a house structure without walls, includes text and halftone images of displaced Black residents of the Belmar community laser-cut into steel. Placed in Historic Belmar Park, the work has direct relationship with the land on which it stands, but also with light and time: sunlight engages with the structure, casting temporary shadows of the words and images onto the land. This is a work not to be simply viewed but to be experienced—a site for reflection and remembrance. A Resurrection in Four Stanzas is a poignant monument to Black families, Black resilience, and our stolen legacy.
Photos courtesy April Banks.

04: We Can’t Cop Cars without Seeing Cop Cars

We Can’t Cop Cars Without Seeing Cop Cars is a site specific installation by artist/scholar Dr. Fahamu Pecou. The installation features a short film by the same title displayed within a modified Ford Crown Victoria Interceptor. Video courtesy Fahamu Pecou.

by Dr. Fahamu Pecou

Atlanta BeltLine, Eastside Trail, Atlanta, GA

2020

Atlanta-based artist and art historian Fahamu Pecou’s departure from his generally two-dimensional fine art practice speaks brilliantly to the culture of police brutality in America and the tendency of Black people to adopt and transform the things intended to intimidate or humiliate us. Honoring the well-established practice of ”tricking out” old police cars acquired at auction, Dr. Pecou gilded a Ford Crown Victoria Interceptor (a standard vehicle in many police departments), turning it into an artwork on the Atlanta BeltLine, a “linear gallery” of public art along a 22-mile corridor on the west, south, and east sides of Atlanta. From the back seat, you can watch a beautiful film with the same title as the artwork—a film that captures the fear and freedom that generations of young Black men have felt behind the wheel.

05: The Roll UP CLT

Jessica Moss saw an opportunity to create a project that supports Black artists with time, space, and money to create their own dream residencies. The Roll Up CLT logo courtesy Jessica Moss.

by Jessica Moss

Charlotte, NC

Is public art always a physical structure set down in public view, or can the genre also include the results of the cultivation of a relationship between artists, public space, and community? This question is particularly poignant for Black artists, who have historically been denied access to funding, materials, and public space—and have thus been forced to rely on community to create works “by any means necessary.” There’s a strong legacy of social practice in the Black tradition of community-based art making—a tradition pioneered by Houston-based artist–arts administrator Rick Lowe and Project Row Houses, among others. Working squarely in this tradition, Jessica Moss, founder and director of The Roll Up CLT artist residency project, challenges our ideas about public art-making.
In 2007 Moss began acquiring neglected properties and transforming them into spaces artists could use to advance their practice. Today, this model includes providing artists with space, funding, and various other forms of capacity-building and support for community engagement. One powerful example of the project’s success is the 2019 residency of photographer SHAN Wallace. During the course of her residency, the East Baltimore–based photographer completed eight commissions, showed work in 12 exhibitions, taught 19 classes, and led five monthly programs at Charlotte’s Beatties Ford Road Library (photographing more than 60 people and producing more than 120 photos, which she gave to the community participants). The result was a network of relationships as well as a set of artworks. “By connecting these communities,” Moss says, “we transform people and neighborhoods, ultimately creating a space that contributes to social change.”
Zun Lee portrait photography lecture. Photo courtesy Jessica Moss.
Writer Ashley Nickens led a community writing workshop at The Roll Up CLT. Photo courtesy Jessica Moss.
SHAN Wallace giving an artist lecture at The Roll Up CLT. Photo courtesy Jessica Moss.
Virtual book club led by Alexandra Walker.
Free photo sessions with artist SHAN Wallace. Photo by Terry Suave.
Moss told Public Art Now guest curator Amina Cooper in an interview (viewable on Forecast's IGTV feed) that the only ask of artists participating in this residency is—while residing in this space in this Black community with these Black people—that you’re a good neighbor. Sometimes that can involve an artist's practice, and sometimes that can be a space that the artist considers a sabbatical for six months. The goal with this space is to provide flexibility for the artists using residencies to accommodate their specific needs. It has taken many forms.

Amina Cooper’s work in public art is centered around policy development and public art planning with a special emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion. She is interested in expanding cultural equity, leading research, community outreach, and fundraising planning for public art projects, especially underserved communities. Through her Forecast Change Lab Research Fellowship focusing on racial justice in public art, she is working with Forecast to develop a national public art policy platform that is rooted in justice, health, and human dignity for Black, brown, and Indigenous people.

As the Public Art Director at CLT Airport, Amina was responsible for coordinating and managing public art projects at CLT on behalf of the Arts & Science Council (ASC). Amina works with multiple stakeholders to coordinate design, construction, and installation of public art at CLT, ranked among the top 10 busiest airports in the world. She previously served as a curator and public arts manager, managing public art policy development and collection management efforts on behalf of Montgomery County, Maryland. She has earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from Howard University and a master of science degree in arts administration from Boston University.

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FORWARD: Issue #3

Community Safety

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