New York City is one step closer to unveiling its monument to Shirley Chisholm, the first black Congresswoman. Today, the city revealed proposals by five artists: Firelei Báez, La Vaughn Belle, Tanda Francis, Mickalene Thomas, and Amanda Williams and Olalekan Jeyifous, who are working together.
The statue, set to be installed in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, is the first artwork commissioned by She Built NYC, an initiative to construct public monuments honoring the city’s women. It was launched in response to a shameful statistic: of the city’s 150 statues of historical figures, only five depict women. (This problem is not unique to New York.)
The project was announced by First Lady Chirlane McCray and former Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen in June 2018 following a government evaluation of the city’s landmarks and monuments. The advisory group’s report recommended that controversial landmarks dedicated to figures such as Christopher Columbus and Theodore Roosevelt should remain, but be joined by additional monuments more representative of the city’s diverse history.
“Following the Mayoral Monuments Commission report, we committed to expanding the people, stories, and voices represented in our public monuments,” Cultural Affairs commissioner Tom Finkelpearl said in a statement. “We’re excited to get a first look at what these artists are envisioning for this lasting testament to Chisholm’s trailblazing achievements.”
Chisholm was selected in November 2018 following an open call for nominations that received close to 2,000 submissions. Earlier this month, the city announced plans for four additional statues honoring Billie Holiday, Helen Rodríguez Trías, Elizabeth Jennings Graham, and Katherine Walker. (Separately, the Parks Department is erecting sculptures of suffragette leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in Central Park, which currently has no statues of historical women.)
The Chisholm monument, which has a $1 million budget, is slated to be installed in late 2020.
Here are the finalists:
This design of hand-painted, 10-to-15-foot-tall steel columns presents not one, but three portraits of Chisholm, each of which would come into focus as the viewer walked around the piece. The three images represent different aspects of Chisholm’s lifetime of public service. Báez has also incorporated references to the African diaspora in the work, with one portrait including an image of the Pan-African flag. And from above, the poles would be arranged in the shape of a Sankofa, a West African symbol of a bird.
Inspired by a quote of Chisholm’s (“if they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair”) Belle’s proposal presents the politician in front of a sea of folding chairs, with one tucked under her arm as she strides boldly forward. The artist has dressed Chisholm in a turban with an eagle pin, underscoring both her immigrant roots and her trailblazing path through the US government. At Chisholm’s feet is a reimagined presidential seal, honoring her historic run for the presidency—the first time a woman sought the Democratic nomination.
Francis has designed a Chisholm Trail Memorial, with inspiring quotes by the politician embedded into the sidewalk approaching the Ocean Avenue entrance of Prospect Park. The pathway leads to a monumental bronze statue of Chisholm, framed by vertical jets of water and light.
Thomas portrays Chisholm as a woman of the people tied to her Brooklyn roots. The monument, in which the figure is sitting down, would be surrounded by planters and benches, creating a welcoming space where people can congregate.
This design from Williams and Jeyifous incorporates both the dome of the US Capitol Building and Chisholm’s silhouette, the two images blended together so that viewers can see one or the other depending on where they stand. The ground beneath the statue will be curved like the floor of Congress, the empty space around it representing the women who have followed in Chisholm’s footsteps, entering the doorway that she left open for them.