NEWARK, NJ — Five artists have been selected by Newark officials to submit preliminary designs for a monument that will honor Harriet Tubman - the heroic abolitionist who made the city an important stop on the Underground Railroad as she led enslaved African-Americans out of the South to freedom. 

The finalists for the monument, which will be erected in Washington Park, were announced on Thursday by Newark Mayor Ras Baraka. The city intends to rename Washington Park to Tubman Square in 2022 when the structure will be installed, replacing the statue of Christopher Columbus that was removed in June 2020. 

“Harriet Tubman’s courage, valor, activism, and spirit of self-sacrifice made her a role model in times of civil unrest and Civil War,” Baraka said in a statement. “She personally led runaway slaves through Newark, working with local abolitionists to hide them from slave-catchers in our churches. Her entire life speaks to us today, teaching us about unity and selflessness in time of struggle. The monument will serve as encouragement to our present and future generations, allowing them to draw inspiration from the artists who will put a modern view on Ms. Tubman’s life and works.” 

The finalists are five critically acclaimed artists: Abigail DeVille, Dread Scott, Jules Arthur, Nina Cooke John, and Vinnie Bagwell.

They were each recommended by a diverse 14-member jury of art experts, historians, and community stakeholders led by the city’s Arts and Cultural Affairs Director fayemi shakur. 

Each finalist will receive an honorarium to complete a conceptual design for the monument this spring, according to city officials. Their designs will also be shared with Newark residents to provide feedback, which jurors will also take into consideration. 

Additionally, the winning artist will be paired with a Newark-based artist to work with as an apprentice, assisting with research and community engagement on the project. 

“I am absolutely thrilled to see these trailblazer artists envision an enduring tribute to Harriet Tubman here in Newark,” said selection committee member, cultural critic and Rutgers University-Newark Professor Salamishah Tillet. “That Ms. Tubman blessed our city on one of her many emancipation journeys is a history that we should celebrate, honor, and learn from as we work towards making her freedom dreams a reality for all Newarkers today.” 

The project comes after the mayor revealed in October 2020 that the city would commission a statue of Tubman to replace Columbus and was subsequently met with applause from many community members. The statue of the 15th-century explorer was dedicated in 1927 as a gift from Newark’s Italian-American community, which took offense to Baraka’s decision to banish the monument to city storage. 

The dedication predates demographic shifts and historians’ discoveries of documents that detail Columbus’ iron rule over the New World, which included savage cruelty toward and enslavement of the Native American population.

During the mayor’s sixth annual State of the City address at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, he said that the move is more than window dressing.

“Newark played an integral role in the Underground Railroad and Harriet Tubman’s journey to freedom led her to our city many times in that very area in a state that was one of the last to acknowledge freedom,” he said.

Bios for each of the finalists can be found here: 

Abigail DeVille was born in 1981 in New York City. Maintaining a long-standing interest in marginalized people and places, Ms. DeVille creates site-specific immersive installations and large sculptures designed to bring attention to these forgotten stories. Her most recent exhibition was “Light of Freedom,” Madison Square Park Conservancy (2020). 

Dread Scott is a visual artist whose work has been exhibited at the Whitney Museum and MoMA PS1. In 2019, 350 people marched on levees on the outskirts of New Orleans as part of his community-engaged artwork Slave Rebellion Reenactment (2019), which reenacted the largest rebellion of enslaved people in US history. 

Jules Arthur was born in St. Louis, MO and moved to New York City to attend The School of Visual Arts where he received a B.F.A. with honors in 1999. He creates visual testimonies to the lives and legacies of those who have had a significant cultural impact. His work features a range of distinguished figures—athletes, activists, abolitionists, musicians, tradesmen, and blue-collar workers—each one of them illuminated through his detailed artistry.  

Nina Cooke John is the founding principal of Studio Cooke John Architecture and Design, a multidisciplinary design studio that values place-making as a way to transform relationships between people and the built environment. Working at the scale of the human body; individually or collectively, in the home or on the street, responding to how we use space in our everyday lives, whether in the family unit or as a community. 

Vinnie Bagwell is an American representational-figurative sculptor who uses bas-relief techniques as visual narratives to expend her storytelling, giving deeper meaning to the legacies of marginalized people of color. She created the first sculpture of a contemporary African-American woman to be commissioned by a municipality in 1996 and has won numerous public-art commissions and awards around the United States.

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