Philadelphia Faces Backlash For Choice Of Harriet Tubman Statue Sculptor And Excluding Black Artists
Albert Lee

According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, the city awarded $500,000 to Wesley Wofford, a white sculptor who designed the traveling statue Harriet Tubman: The Journey to Freedom, which was displayed outside of Philadelphia’s City Hall earlier this year and has since been moved to White Plains, New York. But the city commissioned the work without proposals or drawings from additional artists. 

In a virtual public meeting held on June 15, themes for the new monument were intended to be discussed; however, the session turned into a tense exchange where several Black artists voiced their anger and frustrations about the planning process, as well as their concerns about the importance of race, representation and opportunity.

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“As an artist, it’s hurtful and it is traumatizing,” Dee Jones, a textile artist, said during the public meeting. “If it was an open call and Wesley was chosen, it would be fine. But because the process wasn’t open, that’s the big issue.”

“I am not in support of this particular artist,” Leslie Garrett, another meeting attendee and an administrator based in Philadelphia, said. “This should have been brought to the community.”

People debated the planning process for the $500,000 commission, and whether the race of the artist chosen to design the statue of Tubman, one of the most iconic Black women heroes, mattered. They also said it was insulting that Black artists were not given the opportunity to show how they would’ve interpreted Tubman for the project. 

“Nana Harriet risked life and limb to be free so that no one white person would benefit off her person. And now we have someone white benefiting off of her,” Maisha Sullivan-Ongoza of the Sankofa Artisans Guild told city public art officials at the meeting.

“Now he [Wofford] is renting and selling her [Tubman] from city to city, just like from plantation to plantation. It’s just awful, and it enrages me,” Sullivan-Ongoza said. She and several artists formed a grassroots organization in March called “Celebrating the Legacy of Nana Harriet Tubman,” after they learned that the commission for a permanent monument had been awarded. The group uses the title “Nana” as a term of respect for Tubman, The Inquirer reported. 

Wofford, who was part of the meeting, said he understands that there has been an underrepresentation of public art featuring Black people, and acknowledged that Black artists have historically been underrepresented as well. 

Kelly Lee, Philadelphia’s chief cultural officer and the executive director of the Office of Art, Culture and the Creative Economy, told The Inquirer that the meeting was “visceral at certain points.” Lee said that the city usually has open calls for public art commissions, and she agrees that it is important to include Black artists and artists of color as creators of public art.

Philadelphia officials sent out a survey seeking public opinions on the project. The public survey will conclude on July 13. The permanent statue of Tubman, which is expected to be at least nine feet tall, will be installed in September 2023.

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