Philadelphia’s black artists are outraged that the city has chosen a white artist to pay tribute to abolitionist Harriet Tubman with a new permanent statue set to stand in front of City Hall in 2023.
“Without our city council voting on it, how do you just give away half a million dollars?” asked Maisha Sullivan-Ongonzo of the city’s decision to limit access to a public art project honoring Tubman.
Sullivan-Ongonzo is a Philadelphia-based community activist and multimedia artist. The city of Philadelphia brought in the traveling statue “Journey to Freedom,” created by Wesley Wofford and featuring American abolitionist Harriet Tubman, for the bicentennial celebration of Tubman. From January to March 31 of this year, it stood outside City Hall. According to a city spokesman, the statue received 4 million positive responses, prompting the city to deviate from protocol and bypass an open call for the $500,000 public art project, which was intended to include a diverse pool of capable and diverse artists.
“Even though it’s a great statue, and she said it moved everyone and that no one else can do it, I said, ‘Most artists can do that; I’m an artist.’” “I told them, ‘Most artists, if you give them what they need, we can get that kind of emotive feeling from people; that’s what good artists do,’” Sullivan-Ongonzo explained.
Sullivan-Ongonzo is upset that the city has barred many Black artists from attempting to sculpt Tubman for all to see. She is also bothered by the white artist chosen, Wesley Wofford.
“It’s his race and it’s the process, and when you combine them, you get a 100 percent bad process,” Sullivan-Ongonzo explained as the source of her annoyance.
Since the city announced Wofford as the artist who will be paid $500,000 to design the permanent statue of Tubman in June, a racial backlash has erupted, particularly on social media between Sullivan-Ongonzo and Wofford.
“It makes me think of the plantation.” “She’s back on the plantation; she fled the plantation so that her body, her worth would not be controlled by someone white, and that’s how it feels to me,” Sullivan-Ongonzo lamented.
Wofford expressed his displeasure with “the line, ‘I’m the plantation owner.’”
Wofford went on to say that his career as a prosthetic makeup artist has included working with Tyler Perry, Martin Lawrence, and Chris Rock, among others. He also creates statues, such as those in his studio, many of which feature women of color. He denies that he is profiting from Tubman’s legacy, claiming that his traveling statue cost him $40,000 to create and will take him years to pay off.
“We still have debt from the initial investment in casting that bronze; we owe money on that,” Wofford explained.
Wofford believes he is caught in the crossfire of a larger conflict between city leaders and Black artists in the City of Brotherly Love.
“As a white male, how should I react to that? Should my response be, no, I only sculpt white males? I have a group of Black community members in Philadelphia who’s saying, we want you to come and work for us and let us channel our messaging to you to make one of these statues for our community, and then I have another part of the community saying, we want you to resign and I’m really stuck in the middle, and it’s not my fight, I think it’s a dialogue they need to have within themselves,” Wofford said of the controversy surrounding the selection of the Tubman sculptor.
A spokesperson for the city of Philadelphia sent Atlanta Black Star a statement about the city’s decision to bar other artists from competing for the $500,000 commission for a permanent Tubman statue and instead choose Wofford.
“Selecting Wesley Wofford to create the permanent Harriet Tubman statue is a result of the four million people who responded positively and shared images of Wofford’s temporary sculpture Harriet Tubman: Journey to Freedom, commenting on the statue’s beauty and likeness and expressing how deeply the statue made them feel.”
“Typically, the City would issue an open call for artists for a public art project like this, looking for a wide range of original ideas, visions, and expressions from a diverse pool of artists.”
“This is a one-of-a-kind situation in which the City is not starting from scratch.” The commissioning of Harriet Tubman’s permanent statue in Philadelphia is a continuation of her story, which was inspired by Wofford’s The Journey to Freedom. Without the positive response to Wofford’s temporary Harriet Tubman statue, Philadelphia would not be commissioning this permanent Harriet Tubman statue.”
The city’s reaction is unsatisfactory, with Black artists barred from honoring Tubman with their own version of her statue to be displayed in front of City Hall. Although it is unlikely, the Black artists want the city to completely restart the commission process to select a sculptor.
“This is supposed to be a public arts project with public dollars, and now they’re trying to make it seem like it’s a curated project, and all they want is to curate him and his work, and you can’t do that with tax dollars,” Sullivan-Ongonzo said.
Tubman, best known for using the underground railroad to help enslaved men and women escape to freedom, is being honored with special ceremonies across the country and around the world this year to commemorate the 200th anniversary of her birth.
Tubman’s ties to Philadelphia include a six-year stay in the city in 1855. “She lived and traveled through Philadelphia and Cape May, NJ, working as a domestic in hotels and club houses to save money for her journeys.” She visited Underground Railroad stops frequently, including the home of Philadelphian William Still, the Johnson House in Germantown, and Mother Bethel AME Church. She earned a reputation as a liberator and made friends with powerful reformers such as abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Lucretia Mott. According to The Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy, “through her, she met many other activists, including Frederick Douglass.”
Currently, Philadelphia will use the results of a citywide survey to determine the theme of the permanent Harriet Tubman statue Wofford will use to create the final sculpture. “Lifting as we Climb,” “Lessons from Harriet,” and “Overcoming Adversity” are among the themes.