The choice of a sculptor chosen by Philadelphia city officials to create a statue of Harriet Tubman is being met with backlash over the process that critics say left Black artists out.
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the city chose to award $500,000 to Weasly Woodford to create a statue in honor of the abolitionist and freedom fighter who led dozens of enslaved Black people to freedom during the antebellum period. Woodford is a white sculptor who designed the traveling statue Harriet Tubman: The Journey to Freedom, which stood outside Philadelphia City Hall earlier this year. But the city commissioned the work without seeking drawings or proposals from other artists.
In a public engagement session held on June 15, themes for the statue were intended to be discussed, but instead, it turned into an exchange of frustrated voices. Several artists came to the meeting and voiced their concerns on the importance of race, representation, and opportunity.
“As an artist, it’s hurtful and it is traumatizing,” Dee Jones, a textile artist said during the 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.”
“It undermines our vision, our hope, desires, our creativity. I can go on and on.” Ogundipe Fayomi, another artist said at the meeting. “We have to show that we can do things, rather than showing other people can do things for us”
According to the Inquirer, Fayomi discussed how some concerns were not because he was white, but that the opportunity was just “given to him” without giving other black artists a chance to show their interpretation of the Civil War Hero.
Maisha Sullivan-Ongoza, of the Sankofa Artisans Guild, was not thrilled to see a white man get paid such a large amount of money to create and sell the piece – a depiction of a once enslaved Black woman – as she believed it didn’t benefit anyone but Woodford.
“Nana Harriet risked life and limb to be free so that no one white person would benefit from her person. And now we have someone white benefiting off of her,” Sullivan-Ongoza continued to explain during the session.
Sullivan-Ongoza continued to voice her concerns to the outlet on Friday: ”Now he [Wofford] is renting and selling her from city to city, just like from plantation to plantation. It’s just awful, and it enrages me.“
In her description of the June 15 public meeting, Kelly Lee, the chief cultural officer for the city and the executive director of the Office of Art, Culture and the Creative Economy, told the Inquirer that the meeting was "visceral" at times.
Lee says that the city usually solicits open calls for public art commissions. She agrees it is crucial to include Black artists and other artists of color as creators of public art. One example she used was a statue in honor of opera singer Marian Anderson, which was announced in May by the city.
According to Lee, visitors to the touring statue expressed their love and emotion, which led the city to set up a commission for Woodford to replicate and create another permanent statue evoking the same feeling.
“When people saw it, they didn’t focus on who the artist was,” Lee continues. “That statue resonated so deeply. People said it captured her spirit. It captured her essence. -- I saw people crying when it first arrived and I saw them crying when it was time for it to leave.”