University News

Slavery memorial designer chosen

Staff Writer
Friday, February 17, 2012

Graceful metal skeletons, ash wood ladders stretching skyward, woven rattan curved into elegant silhouettes — the work of sculptor Martin Puryear, who has been selected to design a memorial to acknowledge the University’s links to the transatlantic slave trade, evokes a sense of minimalism even though he reportedly rejects the movement. The Yale-trained artist, who has received numerous accolades for his work, including a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Award, has been showcased in galleries from the Guggenheim to the Museum of Modern Art.

After its February meeting, the Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, announced Puryear’s commission to design a memorial in a campus-wide email. The announcement follows the University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice’s 2006 recommendation to erect a memorial “inviting reï¬ection and fresh discovery without provoking paralysis or shame.” The memorial should be complete and installed in the Quiet Green by 2014, the University’s 250th anniversary.

A ‘stroke of luck’

“I know people have been a little concerned,” said Jo-Ann Conklin, director of the David Winton Bell Art Gallery and member of the Public Art Committee, of the delay. “We’ve been working on (the selection process) in earnest for a couple of years.”

The Public Art Committee began deliberations in fall 2009 after the Commission on Memorials approved the slavery and justice committee’s recommendation for a memorial. Unlike the selection process for other public art installations, the committee overseeing the slavery memorial did not accept submissions for memorial designs.

“We began by looking at a lot of different artists who we thought might be able to do something,” Conklin said. “Some of them were fine artists, some of them were landscape artists, some of them were more architects.”

The committee examined 65 different artists “of all ethnicities,” Conklin said. “A lot of time in the group was spent trying to hone down and decide what this should be, because the memorial can take many different types of forms.”

After the initial screening, the committee narrowed down the pool to five artists, whom they invited to campus to “talk about what their approach would be to the commission,” Conklin said. The committee sent the artists the Report on Slavery and Justice and images of possible sites for the memorial on campus before inviting the artists to campus to share their ideas.

At that stage, the committee began to seriously consider Puryear, Conklin said. “We just felt like his work would appeal to a lot of different people,” she said.

Puryear’s previous work was also a draw for the committee, which voted unanimously to award him the commission.

“To find someone who’s a very fine artist but also willing to think about the memorial is a wonderful stroke of luck for Brown,” said committee member Steven Lubar, director of the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage and director of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology.

The memorial’s location was chosen for its proximity to both University Hall and the Van Wickle Gates, which students march through during Convocation and Commencement. Puryear is slated to begin work on the memorial in a month, Conklin said.

A long journey

The announcement follows a nine-year gap since the slavery and justice committee was first appointed to investigate the University’s historic ties to the slave trade.

“That is a history that most people in the West have contrived to forget,” said James Campbell, a former professor of Africana studies and chair of the slavery and justice committee. “Part of what we tried to do in that report, as you know, was carve out some space for thoughtful reflection about an issue that has been dealt with, if at all, in a very polarized way.”

The reaction to a March 2001 advertisement placed in The Herald by conservative writer-activist David Horowitz illustrated the controversial nature of the issue, said Campbell, who now teaches history at Stanford. The advertisement, which attacked the idea of reparations for slavery, was “designed to provoke a response,” he said. After the advertisement appeared, students protested by condemning the paper’s actions and stealing one day’s press run.

Two years later, President Ruth Simmons appointed the slavery and justice committee to examine the University’s ties to the transatlantic slave trade. The committee’s work eventually drew media attention, with coverage in national publications like the New York Times.

The slavery and justice committee released its findings, which detailed the University’s formative ties to the slave trade, in October 2006. The report recommended the construction of both a memorial and a “center for continuing research on slavery and justice.” The Herald has reported that the University plans to name a director for the center this spring.

“The wheels of academia grind really slowly,” Campbell said, adding that he “never doubted” the University would follow through with the recommendation for a memorial.

“I still think almost 10 years later it was an incredibly visionary thing to have done,” Campbell said.

Since the slavery and justice committee’s report, more than 30 other universities, including Emory University, the University of Maryland and the College of William and Mary, have launched similar investigations into their own histories.

Acknowledging history

The hope for the memorial is that it will “add dimensions to the history of Brown,” Lubar said.

“Universities are full of memorials,” he said. “If you look around the Brown campus, there are probably 100 or 200. The challenge is most of them have faded into the woodwork.”

Lubar suggested that the University might hold lecture talks to keep the memorial relevant to the campus community.

Campbell pointed out that because universities tend to “put up memorials and plaques that celebrate the accomplishments of their students and their community,” this memorial is atypical.

“Brown was one of the few institutions in the world and one of the first universities to face its own role in the transatlantic slave trade and memorialize its own role on its campus,” he said. “I think it’s such a tribute to the institution.”