4 September 2023
A new public art initiative on the National
Mall redefines the monument
by Kate Mothes
During the protests that erupted as a result of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, commencing the Black Lives Matter movement, monuments and memorials around the country associated with racial injustice came under intense scrutiny. Many were vandalized or toppled, and while several had been involved in lengthy efforts to remove them, many were removed in spite of laws that prohibited it. The discussion of what—and who—is memorialized continues today, and a new public art initiative on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., seeks to redefine and reimagine the possibilities of public statues.
Beyond Granite: Pulling Together includes the work of six leading contemporary artists: Derrick Adams, Tiffany Chung, Ashon T. Crawley, vanessa german, Paul Ramírez Jonas, and Wendy Red Star. The exhibition was curated by Dr. Paul Farber and Dr. Salamishah Tillet for Monument Lab, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit, public art studio focused on facilitating conversations around the past, present, and future of monuments.
The artists explore themes of national identity, memory, collectivity, participation, and legacy in the diverse sculptures installed along the mall. “I hope Beyond Granite: Pulling Together sparks important and sometimes hard conversations in living rooms, classrooms, sidewalks, and beyond, about our collective experience and history as Americans,” says Teresa Durkin, Executive Vice President of the Trust for the National Mall. “These new installations are opening the doors to a deeper and more meaningful dialogue about what stories we should pass on to the next generation.”
The theme of the exhibition draws on a historic moment in Washington, on Easter Sunday 1939, when renowned Black opera singer Marian Anderson was barred from entering Constitution Hall due to segregation, and she instead performed outdoors on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. A contemporary of Anderson’s, civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune said at the time that the performance “told a story of hope for tomorrow–a story of triumph–a story of pulling together, a story of splendor and real democracy.” Continuing the spirit of looking forward and positing a future of togetherness, the organizers of Beyond Granite posed the foundational question, “What stories remain untold on the National Mall?”
All images © the artists, Beyond Granite, and Monument Lab
Header image: vanessa german, Of Thee We Sing, 2023, at Lincoln Memorial Plaza. Photo by AJ Mitchell Photography