Does Harriet Tubman Sculptor’s Race Matter?

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By Stacy Connor


A 12 months in the past, the town of Philadelphia invited an artist to design a statue of Harriet Tubman that may stand in entrance of Metropolis Corridor to honor the abolitionist’s legacy and have a good time her connection to the town.

Then the complaints poured in.

Some incensed artists and neighborhood members argued that the town ought to have used a public choice course of fairly than awarding a fee, partly as a result of the artist Philadelphia had chosen was a white man.

The town in the end responded by ending its partnership with the artist and issuing an open name for submissions. It obtained 50 functions and has not too long ago unveiled 5 semifinalist designs, all created by Black artists.

Some say that artists ought to have the liberty to pursue their imaginative and prescient on any topic no matter their race or ethnicity, whereas others imagine that id and expression are inextricably linked and that artwork about Black folks ought to solely be created by somebody who has shared their historical past.

“We all know the depth and worth of our tales,” mentioned Vinnie Bagwell, a 65-year-old artist from New York who is likely one of the 5 Black semifinalists for the Tubman statue. “It’s private for us.”

Bagwell mentioned she believed that Philadelphia made the fitting selection by reversing its settlement with Wesley Wofford, the white designer.

He, nonetheless, was dismayed by the general public outcry. “Artwork is meant to be a common language that transcends gender, race and tradition,” mentioned Wofford, 51.

The thought of putting a Harriet Tubman statue in entrance of Philadelphia’s Metropolis Corridor was impressed by a touring statue that Wofford designed in 2017 after receiving a personal fee. When he posted footage of the statue on-line, he mentioned, folks responded enthusiastically and requested how they might see it in particular person.

So Wofford created an artist’s proof of the statue, known as “Journey to Freedom,” that has since toured 17 American cities, beginning with a go to to Montgomery, Ala., in February 2020. When it was displayed in Philadelphia from January to March 2022 in honor of Tubman’s two hundredth birthday, thousands and thousands of individuals expressed their delight within the monument, mentioned Kelly Lee, government director of the town’s Workplace of Arts, Tradition and the Inventive Economic system.

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Lee’s workplace tried to purchase the statue however couldn’t as a result of the design was a personal fee. As a substitute, the town determined to fee Wofford to design a brand new statue of Tubman for about $500,000.

The contract was being finalized when native artists and neighborhood members heard the information. Tons of of individuals denounced the town for commissioning Wofford as a substitute of opening a public course of that may enable native artists, notably those that are Black, to submit their work. Wofford, who grew up in rural Georgia and now lives in North Carolina, mentioned that the critiques had been largely about his race and that he felt sidelined.

“I didn’t have a lot of a voice,” he mentioned. “Nobody needed to listen to from me.”

Regardless of the criticism, a few of Tubman’s family launched an announcement on the town’s web site in help of the artist.

“Harriet Tubman labored with folks of all races who had been like-minded, and Mr. Wofford is like-minded,” they wrote. “Harriet Tubman stood for folks of all races.”

Initially, the town additionally caught with Wofford.

“Philadelphia wouldn’t be commissioning this everlasting Harriet Tubman statue if not for the general public’s constructive response to Wofford’s momentary statue,” Lee informed The Philadelphia Inquirer on the time. “It might be inappropriate for the town to herald a special artist to recreate the inventive expression of Wesley Wofford.”

In August 2022, the town reversed course and publicly requested for brand spanking new design proposals for the Tubman statue. In an interview with The New York Occasions, Lee mentioned it was “critically vital” to offer alternatives for artists of colour to inform their very own tales.

“The town simply needed to have a statue that everybody might be happy with,” Lee mentioned. “So we made the choice to take heed to the general public once more and situation an open name.”

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The town has opened a public survey for folks to vote on the 5 semifinalist designs till Friday evening. The general public suggestions shall be taken under consideration when a committee composed of members of Tubman’s household, historians, educators, public artists and different stakeholders selects the successful design in October.

Race was not a particular criterion within the choice course of, Lee mentioned. The town chosen the 5 semifinalists, she mentioned, by inspecting images of the designs and asking the artists about Tubman’s significance.

“We appeared on the artists who utilized to ask about whether or not or not they mirrored the variety of the Philadelphia neighborhood,” Lee mentioned.

Wofford mentioned he thought of getting into the competitors with one in every of his designs however thought he would have an unfair benefit due to his earlier discussions with the town. He mentioned he did supply a bigger model of “Journey to Freedom” at price if Philadelphia wanted a fallback plan.

Bagwell’s design, “Harriet Tubman, Metropolis of Liberty,” reveals a nine-foot-tall Tubman when she first arrives in Philadelphia at age 29, standing along with her palms open to the sky. The untitled design from Richard Blake reveals Tubman holding a lantern, a pistol tucked in her belt as she walks beneath the Liberty Bell.

“Collectively in Freedom,” a design by Tanda Francis, 45, depicts a number of silhouettes of Tubman over a keystone. An untitled design by Alvin Pettit reveals Tubman bent in a praying stance as if she is leaning into the wind, and a design by Basil Watson, known as “Maintain Going,” depicts Tubman main folks escaping from slavery towards freedom.

Watson, 65, mentioned that whereas he was glad a Black particular person can be designing the sculpture, it was nonetheless “unlucky that we’ve to ponder race after we are these historic monuments.”

However Francis mentioned it was solely becoming {that a} Black particular person can be liable for the town’s monument to Tubman.

“She’s an ancestor,” Francis mentioned. “We must be telling our story.”



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