New York City is pressing ahead with artwork to celebrate the abolitionist movement that some critics have said is too abstract in a city where there are few monuments honoring blacks through figurative sculptures.
The city plan, which is still under review, features a design by artist Kamila Janan Rashid that incorporates messages of social justice into the benches and borders of a new $15 million park in Brooklyn called Abolitionist Place.
The site belongs on a corner of downtown Brooklyn adjacent to 227 Duffield Street, which gained prominence last year for its association with nineteenth-century anti-slavery advocates.
The city’s Public Design Commission said it submitted a discussion of the design plan last January, after a group of conservationists and activists said they believed the plan should include statues of abolitionists. But in September, the city said it was moving forward with the design, which led to a lawsuit this month by critics who asked a judge to review the city’s approval process.
“We are disappointed,” said Jacob Morris, a historian who challenged the decision of the Public Design Committee, which reviews all permanent features on the city’s property. He said the agency violated its own rules when it refused to hear additional public testimony before voting for conceptual approval of the $689,000 project at the September meeting.
“This is our last resort,” Morris added.
For several years, Morris and others worked on the construction of a figurative sculpture called “Sisters in Freedom” on the same spot in downtown Brooklyn. It will honor historically important black women such as investigative journalist Ida B. Wells, educator and abolitionist Sarah J.
When he was mayor of Brooklyn, New York City Mayor Eric Adams endorsed the traditional memorial that Morris would like to see built. In 2019, Adams wrote a letter to city officials saying the artwork would “lift these great and empowered women to our consciousness.”
The mayor’s spokeswoman, Amarys Cockfield, did not respond to questions about his position on the decision to proceed with a more abstract effort at Abolitionist Place.
City officials said Rashid’s installation plan isn’t yet final, and announced that the artist has begun holding online community interaction sessions this week to hear ideas about her design. Additionally, the Public Design Committee has stated that it will continue to review the design and seek public input.
“We plan to have another public hearing on this matter when it returns for initial review,” the agency’s executive director, Keri Butler, said by email.
An expert in the city’s general design approval process said she believes the legal challenge to the commission’s approval last fall faced an uphill battle.
Michelle Bogart, an art historian specializing in the city’s public works, said the legal challenge to return the memorial to a public hearing “seems a little extreme.” “He’s trying to force them to change the way they work, to make room for more public comment.”
New York City Mayor Eric Adams, New Administration
Shawnee Lee, whose family struggled to preserve the neighborhood’s abolitionist history, supports the lawsuit. “I would like to see the Universal Design Committee change its process and become more inclusive of the community,” she said. “Art is a form of expression, but do you allow us to express our fears?”
The park in which the abolitionist artwork will be displayed is operated by the city’s Economic Development Agency, and the artist was commissioned by the Department of Cultural Affairs.
Rashid, a former public school teacher who adorned the Brooklyn Museum facade text signs, crafted a design that includes a free-standing sculpture, mosaic reliefs, and social justice messages scattered throughout the park.
Kendall Henry, associate commissioner for public art in the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, described the artist’s vision as “deeply rooted in collaboration.”
“We welcome the inclusion of all those with a bona fide interest to work with their neighbors to create a memorial,” Henry added in a statement.
Earlier this week, Rasheed, in one of her online sessions, engaged the audience and made it clear that the community’s input would define many of the essential elements of its synthesis, such as scripts. “We can only do this if we can respect each other,” she said.
She later sent the New York Times a statement saying, “I want to be eager to create something that invites conversation, rather than stating historical facts.”
She said Morris and others are misrepresenting her work.
Rashid said that the questions and texts that will be used in the work are “designed to spark discussion.” “And I’m excited that this project is not and will never be the only one tackling the abolition of slavery in Brooklyn.”