HomeDesignDoes Harriet Tubman Sculptor’s Race Matter?

Does Harriet Tubman Sculptor’s Race Matter?


A year ago, the city of Philadelphia invited an artist to design a statue of Harriet Tubman that would stand in front of City Hall to honor the abolitionist’s legacy and celebrate her connection to the city.

Then the complaint was raised.

something angry artist And community members argued that the city should have used a public selection process instead of awarding a commission, because the artist Philadelphia chose was a white man.

The city eventually ended its partnership with the artist and responded by issuing an open call for submissions. It received 50 applications and recently unveiled five semifinalist designs, all by black artists.

Some say that artists should have the freedom to pursue their vision on any subject regardless of their race or ethnicity, while others believe that identity and expression are inextricably linked and that art about black people should only be created by someone who shares their history.

“We know the depth and value of our story,” said Vinny Bagwell, a 65-year-old New York artist who is one of five black semifinalists for the Taubman statue. “It’s personal for us.”

Bagwell said he believes Philadelphia made the right choice in reversing its contract with white designer Wesley Wofford.

But he was disappointed to see the anger of the people. “Art is supposed to be a universal language that transcends gender, race and culture,” says Wofford, 51.

The idea for a Harriet Tubman statue in front of Philadelphia’s City Hall was inspired by a traveling statue that Wofford designed in 2017 after receiving a private commission. When he posted pictures of the statue online, he said, people responded with enthusiasm and asked how they could see it in person.

So Wofford created an artist’s proof of the statue, called “Journey to Freedom,” which traveled through 17 American cities, ending in Montgomery, Ala., in February 2020. Starting from the tour. When it was displayed in Philadelphia from January to March 2022 in honor of Tubman’s 200th birthday, millions of people expressed their joy at the memorial, said Kelly Lee, executive director of the city’s Office of Arts, Culture and Creative Economy.

Lee’s office tried to purchase the statue but could not because the design was a private commission. Instead, the city decided to commission Wofford to design a new statue of Taubman for about $500,000.

The deal was being finalized as local artists and community members heard the news. Hundreds of people condemned the city for commissioning Wofford instead of opening a public process that would have allowed local artists, especially those who are black, to submit their work. Wofford, who grew up in rural Georgia and now lives in North Carolina, said the criticisms were mostly about her race and she distanced herself.

“I didn’t have much of a voice,” he said. “Nobody wanted to hear from me.”

Despite the criticism, some of Tubman’s relatives released a statement on the city’s website in support of the artist.

“Harriet Tubman worked with people of all colors who were like-minded, and Mr. Wofford was like-minded,” they wrote. “Harriet Tubman stood up for people of all colors.”

At first, the city also stuck with Wofford.

“Philadelphia would not have commissioned this permanent Harriet Tubman statue if the public had not had a positive response to the temporary statue in Wofford,” Lee said. Philadelphia Inquirer At the time “it would be inappropriate for the city to bring in a different artist to recreate Wesley Wofford’s artistic expression.”

In August 2022, the city reversed course and Publicly asked for new design proposals For the Tubman statue. In an interview with The New York Times, Lee said that giving artists of color the opportunity to tell their own stories is “critically important.”

“The city just wanted to have a statue that everyone could be proud of,” Lee said. “So we decided to listen to the public again and put out an open call.”

The city is open A public survey People have until Friday night to vote on the five semifinalist designs. Public feedback will be considered when a committee made up of Taubman’s family members, historians, educators, public artists and other stakeholders selects the winning design in October.

Race was not a specific criterion in the selection process, Lee said. The city selected five semifinalists, he said, by examining photos of the designs and asking the artists about Tubman’s importance to them.

“We looked at the artists who applied to ask if they reflected the diversity of the Philadelphia community,” Lee said.

Wofford said he considered entering the competition with one of his designs but thought he would have an unfair advantage because of his previous negotiations with the city. He said he offered a larger version of “Journey to Freedom” at the expense if Philadelphia needed a fallback plan.

Bagwell’s design, “Harriet Tubman, City of Liberty,” shows a nine-foot-tall Tubman when she first arrived in Philadelphia at age 29, standing with her palms to the sky. Richard Blake’s untitled design shows Tubman holding a lantern, a pistol tucked into his belt as he walks under the Liberty Bell.

“Together in Freedom,” a design by 45-year-old Tanda Francis, depicts several silhouettes of Taubman atop a keystone. An untitled design by Alvin Pettit shows Tubman bent in a prayerful pose as if he were leaning on the wind, and a design by Basil Watson, called “Keep Going”, shows Tubman leading individuals from slavery to freedom.

Watson, 65, said he was happy a black man would design the sculpture, but it was “unfortunate that we have to think about race when we’re looking at these historical monuments.”

But Francis said it was only fitting that a black man would be responsible for the city’s monument to Tubman.

“He is an ancestor,” Francis said. “We should tell the story.”



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