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The Ancestral Libation Chamber and Other Public Projects

OCTOBER 21, 2007
© Amir Bey, 2007
Designer/Architect Rodney Leon and Artist/Activist Elombe Braithe at the opening ceremony for The Ancestral Libation Chamber
One of the glyphs carved into the walls abutting the ramp of for the memorial.
Another glyph.
A view of the ramp, the glyphs on the wall, and the disk-shaped map.
Lei Yixin, standing next to his design for the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial. When completed, the stone sculpture will be three stories tall.
On September 21 in downtown Manhattan on the corner of Duane and Elk streets, a ceremony was held for The Ancestral Libation Chamber, a stone monument erected on the sacred site of the Negro Burial Ground. Designed by the architect and founder/director of AARRIS Architects, Rodney Leon, whose clean-cut, tall, lean frame and friendly yet serious demeanor suggests the combination of Malcolm X and Barak Obama (see “The Ancestral Libation Chamber” video in the NOWSROOM page), the structure is made of black marble reminiscent of the kinds of mud structures found in Mali; one enters from its west side and exits east into a circular open area whose outer rim was festooned with brightly colored flags from around the world. The chamber has two reflecting pools on each side that have running water, lending a gentle yet effective presence. Upon exiting, people enter onto a disk-shaped map of Africa and the Americas, and are eventually guided out of the disk by a narrow circular ramp that moves in a counter clockwise direction around the world-disk; the causeway’s wall has around 20 spiritual glyphs carved into it from Africa and many other cultures, concepts and epochs, including Ghanaian, ancient Egyptian, Islamic, Christian, and Native American.

The 419 ancestors buried in the Negro Burial Ground who were unearthed during the construction of new buildings in that area were reinterred in newly made coffins carved from Ghanaian mahogany by carvers there and lined in kente cloth. Its north side bears the inscription "For all those who were lost. For all those who were stolen. For all those who were left behind. For all those who are not forgotten."

What is phenomenal about this monument is its location. It’s a short block from the sculptor Lorenzo Pace’s monument to the African Slave Trade, Triumph of the Human Spirit (see the video under the same name for that sculpture in the NOWSROOM), the largest monument in the world dedicated to that theme, and paces away from a federal courthouse named for Justice Thurgood Marshall. This is an area that until these significant erections had little that represented African American history, particularly New York City African American history. What is this world coming to?

In another, yet related project, public arts selections are a complicated process, and when one involves the social elements that are inherent in the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial, there is bound to be controversy. What is the controversy here? An artist who is not African American, Lei Yixin of China, was chosen.

There are two possible selections for this project that THE HOLLER! sees as being correct:

1: Since King was African American, to not select an artist from that community was certain to raise its ire. If one were chosen, would that have led to the opposition that the selection committee met with? The answer is no; however, a member of the committee has said that there was no African American artist with experience working in stone of the intended three stories size of this monument. If true, that is a technical concern that could have been solved by having the project designed by an African American artist in clay or any other sculptural medium, yet carried out by a facilitator, either an individual or a company with the necessary experience or capability. That would have allowed more artists of any stripe to formulate and present ideas.

2: From the perspective of Dr. King’s philosophy, a person should be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin; thus the experience and qualifications of Mr. Lei make him an acceptable choice. There does not seem to be any indication that the selection committee specifically wanted to exclude African American artists. When large projects such as this are undertaken there are going to be decisions that may fall beyond the interests of an individual or a group, and more artists have fallen on the wrong side of those decisions than have not. It should be noted that while not all art is political, often the selection or inclusion of an artist is.

THE HOLLER! feels that ideally, result No. 1 is preferable to No.2 from the standpoint that a more open contest would have allowed for more options for the design. However, that still might not have resulted in the selection of an African American artist. Nevertheless, a King monument located near the Washington and Lincoln monuments is an immense victory and it should be noted that African American artists Jon Lockhart and Ed Hamilton are acting as consultants to Mr. Lei. Finally, the number of African American visual artists who have had prominent public commissions nationally and internationally isn’t small and getting larger; importantly, not all of their projects have been limited to African American themes. To name some, Melvin Edwards, Richard Hunt, Barbara Chase Rimbaud, Romare Beardon, Jacob Lawrence, Lorenzo Pace, Robin Holder, Willie Birch, Alvin Loving, Martin Puryear and Algernon Miller. African American artists, including those mentioned above, are not fully recognized or called on for the diverse kinds of commissions that they are capable of, and it is hoped that the present questions asked about the King memorial will help to make selection committees respond with better answers in the future.
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