See the Five Artist Proposals for NYC’s Shirley Chisholm Monument — Zachary Small

Hyperallergic, 03.29.2019

Finalists for the She Built NYC initiative include Firelei Báez, La Vaughn Belle, Mickalene Thomas, Tanda Francis, and a joint project by Amanda Williams and Olalekan Jeyifous.

The vision for gender parity in public art just became a whole lot clearer.

Today, New York City announced five preliminary artist proposals for a new monument honoring America’s first Black congresswoman, Shirley Chisholm. Finalists for the project include Firelei Báez, La Vaughn Belle, Mickalene Thomas, Tanda Francis, and a joint project by Amanda Williams and Olalekan Jeyifous.

The Shirley Chisholm monument is the first commission by She Built NYC, an initiative aiming to rectify the public art gender gap by creating more statuary devoted to female historical figures. The process began in June 2018 with an open nominations call, which later funneled through an advisory committee that delivered a list of recommendations to municipal officials. Ultimately, First Lady Chirlaine McCray and then-Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen chose to honor Chisholm with the program’s first statue — a decision that ignored the committee’s recommendation that the program honor groups instead of individuals.

Two weeks ago, She Built NYC announced four new honorees who will receive statues in the future, including jazz singer Billie Holiday in Queens; Civil Rights leader Elizabeth Jennings Graham in Manhattan; public health pioneer Dr. Helen Rodríguez Trías in the Bronx; and lighthouse keeper Katherine Walker on Staten Island.

Currently, only 3 percent of the city’s sculptures honor female historical figures. That’s 5 monuments devoted to women compared to the 150 statues for men.

“Shirley Chisholm, a true daughter of Brooklyn, born of West Indian immigrants who settled in Bedford-Stuyvesant, was one of this nation’s greatest dreamers,” said Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams in a statement. “A monument of this magnitude, dedicated to the first person in 192 years to embody the triple threat of being Black, a woman, and a representative of Congress, is most deserving of this lasting recognition. It is long overdue.”

Renderings for the five proposals display an eclectic mixture of architecture assemblage, amphitheater seating, and larger-than-life statuary. Artists were selected by an initial Percent for Art panel in January; a second panel by the organization will select a finalist who will refine their design before presenting it to the local community board and submitting it to the Public Design Commission later this year. Up to $1 million will be available for the commissioning monument. The commission is anticipated for completion by the end of 2020 and will be installed at the Parkside entrance to Prospect Park in Brooklyn. The public is invited to submit comments about the monument on through March 31 by following this link.

“The monument to Shirley Chisholm proposed by artist Firelei Báez is comprised of a series of hand-painted metal columns that collectively shape-shift into three respective portraits of the trailblazing legislator and first African American presidential candidate. Like a lenticular panel whose image changes when viewed from different angles, from each of three vantage points, this traversable forest of flower-like posts will transform into varying representations of Shirley Chisholm. As the viewer walks around the sculpture, the partial images painted onto each of the posts’ three sides will coalesce into distinct portraits when viewed from specific perspectives. Each of the three portraits represent a different aspect of Chisholm’s public role and accomplishments.

“Báez creates Chisholm’s three representations incorporating hand-painted imagery tied to inherited Afrodiasporic narratives. Two of the portraits liken Chisholm’s characteristics to those of Orishas, human embodiments of elemental spirits from the Yoruba tradition, while the third incorporates the Pan-African flag. When viewed aerially, the beams of Chisholm’s monument are arranged into the form of Sankofa, the West African symbol of a bird which reaches back to move forward and construct our future. 

“The proposed monument will be an accumulation of hand-painted, vertical steel columns, each measuring approximately 10-15 feet in height and anchored into a poured concrete foundation covered with pavers. A point of inspiration for this sculpture’s form is the monument to Nelson Mandela in Howick, South Africa.”