It is an eventful time for the monuments of the United States. The inanimate sculptures that long served as a mute civic backdrop have been violently thrust into the limelight, in contemporary conflicts entirely related to the historical violence their bronze and marble figures have represented or obscured. Cities from New York to Los Angeles have recently undertaken surveys of their public monuments; a national audit confirms that the monumental landscape is overwhelmingly white and male, celebrates war and conquest, and misrepresents American history. The need to remove, rehouse, or recontextualize the monuments we have is clear. But what comes after? How do we create sites of public memory that speak to the full American experience, both the horror and the beauty?
Downtown Newark is still awash in bronzes, but where the city took down a statue of Christopher Columbus, a very different work has risen in its place. By the light rail station in what is now Harriet Tubman Square is a new monument, entitled “Shadow of a Face.” Here, Harriet Tubman is not a person on a plinth but more akin to a pavilion’s protector. The canopy of her skirt and a larger-than-life relief of her face envelop a space where visitors can linger, reflect, and connect to a story of community support and Black liberation. This contemporary architecture parlante also literally speaks with an audio program and ceramic tiles contributed by Newark residents. We spoke with artist and architect Nina Cooke John, who designed the monument, and with Newark’s Arts and Culture Director fayemi shakur, who oversaw the commissioning process, about the meaning of representation in the search for a new monumentality. Meeting for the first time since the official inauguration in March 2023, they jumped back into an ongoing conversation about community, collaboration, and the making of a 21st-century monument.
You worked so closely for so long. Have the two of you been in touch since the monument was inaugurated in March? What was that like?
I don’t know how relevant it is, but leading up to it, I was anxious. fayemi and I have a kind of casual grief support group because we both lost a child in the course of the process. It had been a really long process, a really important project. Since fayemi and I had also been connecting separately, I didn’t know if I was going to look at fayemi and start crying. But the vibe was supportive; the people were really happy. They embraced the project at a level that I don’t think I could have imagined.
You were so beautiful and so eloquent. I couldn’t stop smiling at you. I could feel other people’s happiness and joy. And I can’t remember another experience like that. It also felt like we were making some kind of, I don’t want to say a historic change, but changing a narrative, the landscape of the conversation we could have, finally, that we haven’t been able to have in public spaces.
Have you been keeping tabs on the monument since then?
People keep tabs on it for me, they tag me in photos, they text me photos, they send me videos. That’s really nice to see, people bringing their mother, bringing their children. Nina sent me a picture of a young girl sitting on the bench doing her homework there.
We had to go check on a few things in the weeks following the unveiling, and there were these two older women there. They said that they used to teach in different schools in Newark, and they came because they wanted to see the monument. The Cor-ten steel is changing over time, and eventually, it will completely rust. It was the early days, so it was only just starting to change. They were concerned that it was deteriorating, and I had to explain the rusting process of the Cor-ten. I could feel that they really cared about the physical structure because it meant a lot to them.
I think because of your vision and the way you thought about community engagement, people do feel that it is theirs, that they have ownership in it. Involving all the different partners that we had — the Newark Museum, the Newark Public Library, Newark Arts, and Audible — there were so many partners engaged in this. We had so many meetings; there had to be about 100 different people that collaborated or contributed or helped us in some type of way. Was that overwhelming for you, Nina?
It was great. I did talk to you that one time, “I’m in meeting after meeting after meeting. There’s a sound meeting, then there’s the general coordination meeting, then there’s the fabrication meeting, then there’s the workshop meeting.” Having different collaborators with different skill sets and different stakeholders made a big difference too: “What does the audio content need to be like? Who are the people who are going to come to the monument? How does it relate to the historical content? What’s the emotional experience of mixing narrative audio with voices from the community?” There were a lot of high level curatorial and creative discussions, and then there were really technical discussions.
The universe brought us together for some reason that I don’t know, but it’s really huge. Something about both of us losing our children to suicide while we were working on this. It somehow helped me to think of Harriet Tubman and her courage, and all she had to endure, and her suffering, and helping others even though she herself might have been in pain or fearful or scared. Thinking of her legacy helped me through my grief, I think.
In the competition entry, I mentioned that this was dedicated to the women of Newark. I want it to be a place where you can go and kind of lay down whatever you need to lay down, as part of this idea of liberation. To be in that space, when me, fayemi and another woman who is a part of this kind of de facto grief group that we have, met there one day — it felt like that kind of space, you know? Where we could just be, and we didn’t necessarily need to be talking about anything specifically, and with the audio intermittently coming in, it definitely felt like that kind of space where you can just be. Whether you’re there to think specifically about Harriet Tubman, or just to be in a public space, that you just want to be a part of. You come away with an understanding that is multi-layered, you can go there one time and learn, go there another time and learn a little more, and go there again and just sit.
Yes, just come and sit and listen, and maybe be inspired or moved.
You’ve talked about the monument as a site of pilgrimage, which is a striking way of thinking about a monument. There’s perhaps a connection to pilgrimage as escape to freedom in the story of Harriet Tubman.
I’ve always been interested in spaces of community connection. In antebellum times, people would travel for days to these revival meetings. There weren’t only religious sermons, but there were sermons that oftentimes had hidden messages about true freedom: they shared the codes of the Underground Railroad. Pilgrimages get you out of your space and connect to something new, connecting to each other, and sharing that can lead to change.
In some ways we’ve begun our conversation at the very end of the journey. You could say the process — from open call to inauguration — was very short, but in others, this monument has been a long time coming.
In 2019, I was working as a curator of community engagement on an exhibition called “A Call to Peace,” which was inspired and brought about by Monument Lab, and a local organization, New Arts Justice, which is led by Dr. Salamishah Tillet, a cultural critic who also teaches at Rutgers-Newark. They invited me to come and do a series of public conversations around what would be a timely monument for Newark. We were reviewing a certain monument called “Wars of America,” which was created by a sculptor named Gutzon Borglum — the same sculptor who did Mount Rushmore. Most people didn’t know the history of that monument or the context or anything. Borglum was actually affiliated with the KKK. We had conversations about how Confederate-era leaders wanted to shape the narrative of history in their favor and almost memorialize racism.
We asked the community to contribute their own ideas about public art: What would you want to see as a monument in your city? We had people of all ages passing through the park: residents, people who worked in the city, children, college students. They would also come to these weekly conversations. People said they wanted to see a monument of Harriet Tubman. People wanted to see more representation of themselves in the art and in the public spaces around them. The current monuments across the country, of war and white male leaders, do not reflect the stories of us currently — who we are now as a community or a nation.
And then the pandemic and the George Floyd protests came. We had a huge protest of about 12,000 or so people that came out. I was there that day. It was incredible. I don’t want to say it was peaceful, because people were angry. But they were free to express their anger. Our Mayor led us and encouraged the people to express their outrage. In that tumultuous time, people were toppling monuments, and the Mayor was concerned that somebody was going to topple the Columbus monument and hurt themselves or destroy the monument. We understood, historically, we should preserve the art that we have here, even if we don’t agree with it. That was the Mayor’s choice: to move it. We donated it to St. Lucy’s Church, which is the church that originally gifted the Columbus statue to the city.
As statues come down, it leads to other questions of representation. Do we want to see new figures on pedestals, or are we looking for something else entirely? Nina, you came into this competition not wanting to do a figurative sculpture. And on the city side, you assembled this brilliant team of thinkers and scholars and artists to guide what this monument should be. I’m curious how you each approached that question of what should and could such a new monument be?
I don’t tend to work figuratively, I tend to work more abstractly. When it comes to representation in public space, how we understand monuments is changing. We don’t necessarily want to see more figurative pieces in public space, but I thought it was important to include Harriet Tubman’s face in the proposal. It’s still important in terms of people going there and wanting to see their faces reflected. People love that part of it, but the figure is presented in a way that it hasn’t been presented before. The face is oversized, but it’s at eye level. You can touch it, and it should feel not dominant or domineering, but more like it’s your auntie who you can touch and talk to if you want to.
We definitely considered those things in the jury process. Our top five finalists were some of the most incredible folks that we could have had, people like Dread Scott and Vinnie Bagwell. On the jury, what we wanted to know is: How do we reimagine what people think public art should be? It was less about being these high-minded, high-brow art folks who wanted to do something great, and more about what would Newarkers connect with. And Nina’s proposal had the most community engagement involved. She involved residents, with their own hands, in the monument. That, ultimately, is what led our decision.
You ultimately wove multiple narratives into the monument itself, including the story of Black liberation in Newark and New Jersey, and the stories, and aspirations, of many Newarkers today.
Harriet Tubman might be the face of the story, but the story is one that was supported by community. How do we ground that story in Newark? There were people in Newark at the time who were instrumental to the Black liberation struggle. How do we use that bridge to then connect to our continuing stories of liberation? Whether it’s personal liberation in small ways or in larger ways, it breaks heroic action down in a way that we can feel like, “Oh, we could do that.”
Over the course of the year, we had multiple workshops at different venues: some of them downtown, some of them in people’s neighborhoods, because it’s not easy for everyone to come downtown. We were trying to be purposeful in terms of making sure we reach people, and in the process educating them about the new monument because a lot of people didn’t even know it was happening. Through these workshops we collected almost 500 tiles, and a subset of those people also contributed audio stories. The prompt for the tilemaking and audio stories was, “What does liberation mean to you?”
And then layered on top of that, we worked with the historians to get the history straight on all fronts, and incorporated that into the text and audio in the monument.
The Mellon Foundation encouraged us to commission historians to do the background research about the Underground Railroad as a network. It wasn’t just about location, but it was about community and safe spaces that existed here in Newark, where people could go on their way to other places. There’s history about the Underground Railroad that even as Newark residents we didn’t know. We didn’t know that Newark wasn’t necessarily a free place for enslaved Africans to be. It was actually quite dangerous; New Jersey was the last state in the union to actually abolish slavery. Through the historians’ research, and that narrative that you hear Queen Latifah tell in the audio when you sit down, you get to learn and almost feel what it might have been like to live during that time.
There were challenges. We had to appear before the New Jersey Historic Preservation Office, and there was a lot of pushback from the Italian American community who were upset that we were removing Columbus. We had to include some mitigations around the interpretive signage, to frame the history of the park from the past to the present. Our interpretive signage now also includes a land acknowledgement, which has never been done before, at a municipal level in the city. When they tell the history of Newark they’re always talking about, “Oh, the Puritans settled here,” and we don’t talk about the indigenous community. All those histories — the indigenous community, the founding of Newark, Columbus, slavery — all of those stories are being told simultaneously.
People from other cities ask me a lot: “How did you do this?” They want to know if there’s a blueprint for how municipalities commission artworks like this. I wish I could provide an easy guide, but it really was learning along the way and asking lots of questions. Also, the leadership of the city has to prioritize projects like this and say that it’s meaningful and important, and it has a public benefit.
The monument weaves together many stories, and it also incorporates many materials. You talked about your early visitors’ reaction to the Cor-ten, but there is also wood, and steel, and the ceramic tiles that Newarkers made in the workshops, inlaid in the concrete walls.
It was important to me that there was a tactile quality to the monument, to encourage people to touch. So the idea was that the face would be made up of multiple pieces so that it is textured, that you want to touch the cracks. We included wood, which is inherently a soft, warmer texture that almost feels residential. Originally, the inner wall where the text is was concrete, but I realized, “There’s a lot of concrete here,” and we changed it to painted steel. Then we were thinking, “How can we make this more friendly to maintenance?” At one point, the inside of the steel channels that make up the central figure was going to be painted red. Then we tested it with the light, and it was looking scary at night. We had decided on Cor-ten for the text panels, so maybe this inner portion of the figure could also be Cor-ten. I think it works really well at night, when you see it lit and you can see the subtle orange coming from inside the channels.
Later on in the process, we were asked to have the Tubman monument be a pilot project for the Design for Freedom movement, which is an initiative by Grace Farms trying to combat forced labor across the world. We became more cognizant of the supply chain of the materials. So we decided to go with black locust for the wood, which was sustainably grown in the Midwest; replacing the originally specified ipe, which is oftentimes tinged by forced labor. We changed the specifications of the concrete to include fly ash, reducing the cement, and traced the steel as far back in the supply chain as we could. That was a challenging administrative process, especially given the limited budget and that the fabricators are already on board. But it’s something that we thought was important. We asked the questions: “Where does the wiring come from? How far back can we trace it?”
By the end of the process, the fabricators were like, “This was great.” But each and every one of them said, “This was the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do.”
Even if it’s a fallacy, that traditional idea that the monument is a thing cast in bronze and somehow immovable and “permanent” endures. When you start moving into these different materials and incorporating sound, it’s operating on a different temporal scale. I’m curious about your thinking about the time of this monument, in terms of its maintenance and its place in history.
Both the Cor-ten and the wood will start to change color and then stop. Different surfaces of the Cor-ten change differently depending on their exposure to the rain. The wood will also start to weather and become gray over time. It’ll then start to layer with bird poop and dust and whatever else is in the air.
All that should be relatively easy to clean with that gentle power wash. You don’t want to put something up that the city has a hard time maintaining. We’ve built it to last 100 years. The LED light fixtures are set to 85 percent brightness, so that they will last at least 20 years. They’ll be relatively easy to replace. The sound is something that we can tweak remotely. There’s an AV system in the interpretive signage tower close by. So it’s a 21st century monument in many ways.
The monument is looking back to look forward. We’re thinking historically, about 200 years ago, about this woman, and the people that supported her, the stage coach drivers — who they were and how they were able to use their technology at the time to help in the struggle. And we’re looking to the future. It could be five years from now. The future doesn’t have to be 50 years from now. People sometimes just need to imagine themselves a little bit into the future in terms of feeling personal progress. And that’s what we’re hoping: that they can, seeing themselves in the space, they can dream themselves into being a more permanent part of the city, and part of the future possibilities of the city.