New York City is pushing forward with an artwork to celebrate the abolitionist movement that some detractors have said is too abstract in a city where so few monuments honor Black people with figurative sculptures.
The city’s plan, still undergoing review, features a design by the artist Kameelah Janan Rasheed that incorporates messages of social justice into the benches and borders of a new $15 million park in Brooklyn named Abolitionist Place.
The site belongs to a corner of Downtown Brooklyn that adjoins 227 Duffield Street, which received landmark status last year for its connection to antislavery advocates of the 1800s.
The city’s Public Design Commission said it had tabled the discussion of the design plan last January, after a group of preservationists and activists said they thought the plan should feature statuary of the abolitionists. But in September, the city said it was moving forward with the design, prompting a legal challenge filed this month by critics who asked a judge to review the city’s approval process.
“We are frustrated,” said Jacob Morris, the historian who is challenging the decision by the Public Design Commission, which reviews all permanent monuments on city property. He said the agency violated its own rules when it declined to hear additional public testimony before voting for conceptual approval of the $689,000 project in a September meeting.
“This is our last resort,” Morris added.
For several years, Morris and others have worked to erect a figurative sculpture called “Sisters in Freedom” in the same spot in Downtown Brooklyn. It would honor historically significant Black women like the investigative journalist Ida B. Wells and the educator and abolitionist Sarah J. Garnet.
When he was Brooklyn borough president, New York City Mayor Eric Adams had supported the traditional monument that Morris would like to see built. In 2019, Adams wrote a letter to city officials saying that the artwork would “elevate these great, empowered women further into our consciousness.”
A spokeswoman for the mayor, Amaris Cockfield, did not respond to questions about where he stands on the decision to proceed with a more abstract effort at Abolitionist Place.
City officials said that the plan to install the Rasheed work is not final as yet and announced that the artist began holding online community engagement sessions this week to hear thoughts about her design. In addition, the Public Design Commission said it would continue to review the design and seek public input.
“We plan to have another public hearing on this when it returns for preliminary review,” Keri Butler, executive director of the agency, said over email.
One expert on the city’s public design approval process said she thought the legal challenge to the commission’s approval last fall faced an uphill fight.
A legal challenge to get the monument back into a public hearing “seems a bit extreme,” said Michele H. Bogart, an art historian specializing in the city’s public works. “He’s trying to force them to change the way they operate, to make room for more public comment.”
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Shawné Lee, whose family has fought for preserving the neighborhood’s abolitionist history, supports the lawsuit. “I would like to see the Public Design Commission change their process and become more inclusive to the community,” she said. “Art is a form of expression, but are you allowing us to express our concerns?”
The park in which the abolitionist artwork will be featured is being steered by the city’s economic development agency and the artist has been commissioned by the Department of Cultural Affairs.
Rasheed, a former public-school teacher whose text-based banners have adorned the Brooklyn Museum’s facade, has drafted a design that includes a free-standing sculpture, mosaic reliefs and messages of social justice spread across the park.
Kendal Henry, assistant commissioner for public art with the city’s cultural affairs department, characterized the artist’s vision as “deeply rooted in collaboration.”
“We welcome the input of everyone with a good-faith interest in working with their neighbors to create a monument,” Henry added in a statement.
Earlier this week, Rasheed, in one of her online sessions, engaged with the public and explained that community input would determine many core elements of her installation, like the texts. “We can only do this if we can respect each other,” she said.
She later sent The New York Times a statement in which she said: “I want to be mindful of creating something that invites conversation, rather than stating historical facts.”
She said Morris and others were misrepresenting her work.
The questions and texts that will be used in the work “are designed to elicit discussion,” Rasheed said. “And I am excited that this project is not and will never be the only project addressing abolition in Brooklyn.”