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Philadelphia faces criticism for commissioning a statue of Harriet Tubman from a white artist

“Harriet Tubman: The Journey to Freedom” by Wesley Wofford (photo by Amaury Laporte via Flickr)

The city of Philadelphia comes under criticism for commissioning Wesley Wofford, a white sculptor, to complete a statue of abolitionist Harriet Tubman. The monument, which will be unveiled in the fall of 2023, will be based on an existing sculpture by the same artist titled “Harriet Tubman: The Journey to Freedom”, which was temporarily installed outside Philadelphia City Hall between January and March and traveled to ten cities so far with twelve additional cities up for grabs. But some say city officials haven’t done enough to solicit community feedback before the commission.

Marguerite Anglin, public art director at the Philadelphia Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (OACCE), explained in a virtual public meeting on June 15 that the temporary sculpture “Journey to Freedom” had elicited such an overwhelmingly positive response that the Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney immediately supported Wofford’s funding to create a site-specific sculpture depicting Tubman. “It will feature one of the city’s first public works of art in honor of a historical African American female figure,” he said.

During the meeting, which was intended to gather feedback from Philadelphia about what was most important to them about Tubman and what stories they wanted Wofford’s sculpture to tell, many complained about what they considered an opaque and opaque commission process. they expressed a preference that the artist be black.

“I’m not in favor of this artist doing the work. Nothing personal against him, just the fact that I think it should be an African American doing this job, “said Leslie Garrett, an attendee who spoke at the meeting’s discussion session. In response, Anglin pointed out that the city process usually involves the publication of an open call for nominations, during which priority is given to underrepresented artists, but that this public art commission was an exception, due to the “outpouring of love” for the temporary sculpture.

“Right or wrong, we feel it would be inappropriate for us to hire another artist – to hire a black artist or a different artist – to recreate another artist’s expression,” Anglin said.

Asked about his response at the meeting, Wofford said “the Underground Railroad was a biracial venture,” while acknowledging that both black artists are underrepresented in public statuary and that monuments overwhelmingly continue to portray military. whites.

But Wofford’s response promptly inspired citizen reprimands at the meeting, one of which pointed out that the Underground Railroad was primarily a black-backed struggle. “When a sculptor is up there on that ladder, sculpting or doing clay work, it’s very important for us as people of color to see this process taking place, especially among young people to inspire them to do that kind of process – to be sculptors, to be builders of monuments, ”noted Ogundipe Fayomi, another collaborator.

At some points, the meeting became directly confrontational, with some attendees expressly addressing their questions to Wofford. “If you think or agree with your words, not verbatim, that there should be fairness in terms of black artists or other artists, what could you do? Courageously, what could you do? You may have to sit down with that, ”Dee Jones said, suggesting that Wofford should drop out of the project.

“Nana Harriet risked her life and limb to be free so that no white person could benefit from her person. And now we have someone white taking advantage of her, ”said Maisha Sullivan-Ongoza, a public artist and member of a collective called Celebrating the Legacy of Nana Harriet Tubman – trained to rally against the commission.

Until July 13, the Philadelphia OACCE will gather responses through a public input survey on its website, which the agency says will help inform the development of the definitive Tubman statue.

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