Black Philadelphia artists say the process of selecting a white artist to design the Harriet Tubman statue was unfair

Black artists in Philadelphia are outraged that the city has chosen a white artist to pay tribute to abolitionist Harriet Tubman with a new permanent statue slated to stand in front of City Hall in 2023.

“How do you just give away half a million dollars without our city council voting on it?” Maisha Sullivan-Ongonzo asked after the city’s decision to restrict access to a public art project honoring Tubman.

Sullivan-Ongonzo is a community activist and multimedia artist based in Philadelphia. To celebrate the bicentennial of American abolitionist Harriet Tubman, the city of Philadelphia brought in Wesley Wofford’s “Journey to Freedom” statue featuring Tubman. It stood in front of the town hall from January to March 31 of this year. According to a city spokesman, the statue has attracted 4 million people who responded positively to the sculpture, prompting the city to break usual protocol and bypass an open call for the $500,000 public art project. to include a broad pool of skilled and diverse artists.

“Even though it’s a great statue and she said how it moved everyone and no one else can, I said, ‘Most artists can do that; I am an artist.’ I said, “Most artists, if you give them what they need, we can evoke these emotional feelings in people; that’s what good artists do,’” Sullivan-Ongonzo said.

Sullivan-Ongonzo is upset that the city is preventing many black artists from sculpting Tubman for all to see. She also takes issue with the featured artist, Wesley Wofford, who is white.

“It’s his race and it’s the process, and when you combine it, 100% you get a bad process,” Sullivan-Ongonzo expressed the source of her frustration.

Since the city of Wofford announced the artist who will receive $500,000 to design the permanent Tubman statue in June, a verbal battle with racist overtones has erupted, particularly on social media between Sullivan-Ongonzo and Wofford.

“It reminds me of the plantation. She’s back on the plantation; She fled the plantation so her body, her worth, wouldn’t be controlled by someone white, and that’s how it feels to me,” Sullivan-Ongonzo lamented.

Wofford shared that “the line ‘I’m the plantation owner'” bothers him.

Wofford added that his career, which spans both film and art, has included working with the likes of Tyler Perry, Martin Lawrence and Chris Rock as prosthetic makeup artists. He also sculpts statues, including those in his studio, many of which contain women of color. He denies claims that he simply benefits from Tubman’s legacy, claims that his traveling statue cost him $40,000 to create and says it will take years to pay for itself.

“We still have debts from the initial investment in casting this bronze; We still owe money for that,” Wofford said.

Wofford says he feels caught in the middle of a deeper battle between city leaders and black artists in the city of brotherly love.

“As a white man, how am I supposed to react to this? Should my answer be no, I only make white males? I have a group of black community members in Philadelphia who say we want you to come and work for us and let us carry our message to you to create one of these statues for our community and then I have another part telling the community we want you to step down and I’m really stuck in the middle and it’s not my fight I think it’s a dialogue they need to have with themselves,” Wofford said of the controversy the choices of the Tubman sculptor.

A spokesman for the city of Philadelphia sent Atlanta Black Star a statement regarding its decision to bar other artists from competing for the $500,000 commission for a permanent Tubman statue and selecting Wofford.

“The selection of Wesley Wofford to create the permanent Harriet Tubman statue is the result of the four million people who responded positively and shared images of Wofford’s temporary sculpture Harriet Tubman: Journey to Freedom, commenting on and expressing the statue’s beauty and likeness brought how deep the statue made them feel.”

“The city would normally hold an open call for artists for a public art project like this, looking for a variety of original ideas, visions and expressions from a diverse pool of artists.”

“This is a unique situation where the city is not starting over. The commissioning of Philadelphia’s permanent Harriet Tubman statue is a continuation of Harriet Tubman’s story inspired by Wofford’s The Journey to Freedom. Philadelphia would not commission this permanent statue of Harriet Tubman if the public had not responded positively to Wofford’s temporary statue.”

The city’s response does not sit well with black artists who are blocked from honoring Tubman with their own version of her statue to be displayed in front of City Hall. While unlikely, black artists want the city to restart the commission process to fully select a sculptor.

“This is supposed to be a public art project, with public money, and now they’re trying to make it look like it’s a curated project, and they curate him and his work, that’s all they want and you can don’t do that with taxpayers’ money,” Sullivan-Ongonzo said.

Tubman, best known for using the subway to help enslaved men and women escape to freedom, was honored with special ceremonies across the country and around the world this year as it marks 200 years after her birth is.

Tubman’s connections to Philadelphia include her six-year stay in the city in 1855. “She lived and traveled throughout Philadelphia and Cape May, NJ, working in hotels and clubhouses as a housemaid to save money for her travels. She was a regular at Underground Railroad stops, including visiting the home of Philadelphian William Still, visiting the Johnson House in Germantown, and speaking at Mother Bethel AME Church. She earned a reputation as a liberator and befriended powerful reformers, including Lucretia Mott, an abolitionist and suffragette. Through them, she met many other activists, including Frederick Douglass,” according to the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy.

Effective immediately, Philadelphia will seek feedback from a citywide survey to determine the subject of the permanent Harriet Tubman statue that Wofford will use to create the final sculpture. Topics include: “Lifting as we Climb”, “Lessons from Harriet” and “Overcoming Adversity”. Black Philadelphia artists say the process of selecting a white artist to design the Harriet Tubman statue was unfair

James Brien

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