NEWARK, NJ - When Salamishah Tillet looks at the sculptured monument that dominates the center of Military Park in downtown Newark, she knows the past is never dead. It's not even past.
"Monuments are fraught with meaning, but are also physically quite visible and understood by people in their communities as symbols of inclusion or exclusion," said Tillet, Rutgers University-Newark faculty director of the New Arts Justice Initiative at Express Newark, as she explained the theme behind A Call to Peace, a public art and history exhibition that opened on Thursday focused on the Wars of America monument. "Here, there is an amnesia around the monument or a lack of engagement. We have to figure out what these types of monuments were intended to represent, what they mean to people now, and what they will mean in the future."
The exhibition calls on people to remember a controversial aspect of the monument's past. Wars of America was installed in 1926 by famed sculptor Gutzon Borglum just before he began creating his most famous work, the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota. Borglum, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, also designed the Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial in Georgia, the largest of the particular kind of memorials that have recently generated protests and controversy, including the 2017 fatal incident in Charlottesville, Virginia. He used granite from Stone Mountain as the pedestal for the sculpture in Newark.
This debatable base for one of the most important pieces of public art in Newark sparked the key question behind the exhibition.
"What is a timely monument for Newark? Monuments are not really timeless. They are a product of a time," said Paul Farber, artistic director of Monument Lab and co-curator of the exhibition. "We don't want to treat the monument as frozen in time. Our premise is any process of understanding the monuments of the past should include inviting artists to add their stories adjacent to the structures, and see what they would build as an alternative. We want to put power in people's hands today."
The exhibition, which opened on Oct. 3 and will run until Nov. 11, will include events at Military Park, Express Newark and the Newark Museum. It features temporary monuments and artworks by renowned local artists Manuel Acevedo, Chakaia Booker, Sonya Clark, and Jamel Shabazz. All the work in some way addresses the relationship between public spaces and historical memory.
Alongside the artist installations, a research engagement lab will be in place, staffed by Newark-based artists and educators, where passersby will be invited to contribute their own speculative monument proposals. The collected responses will be added to an open database, posted on a community board in Express Newark, and shared as a report to the city in 2020.
The exhibition will coincide with this year's Newark Arts Festival, with events taking place all over the city from Oct. 8 to 13.
America is a nation of ambivalence, contradiction and complexity. Borglum had Klan ties and helped make Stone Mountain. However, he also created the sculpture of Abraham Lincoln next to the Essex County Courthouse in Newark, where Brooklyn Dodgers baseball great and African-American civil rights icon Jackie Robinson was once photographed. It is precisely these historical, social and cultural juxtapositions that those supporting the exhibition want to draw out to provoke thought and emotion in its observers.
"The founding paradox of America is slavery and freedom. Thomas Jefferson was both a slaveholder and the author of the Declaration of Independence," said Tillet, noting the exhibition is taking place exactly 400 years after the first African slaves arrived in this country. "By exposing contradiction and confronting paradox, we can really live out our freedom and democracy. Instead of repeating ourselves, we can create a blueprint for the future."