6 artists reinvent monuments on the National Mall

A collage of images from Beyond Granite, a temporary public art installation on the National Mall.

Photo: AJ Mitchell/ AJ Mitchell Photography

On Easter Sunday 1939, 75,000 spectators gathered to see legendary contralto Marian Anderson run on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The Daughters of the American Revolution had banned Anderson from performing at Washington, DC’s Constitution Hall because she was black, so she made music history on the National Mall instead. Activist and educator Mary McLeod Bethune later described the concert as “a tale of hope for tomorrow – a tale of triumph – a tale of unity, a tale of brilliance and genuine democracy.”

Beyond granite: pulling together, The first curated outdoor exhibit on the National Mall takes its name from Bethune’s review. The exhibition, which runs until September 18th, features the work of six artists whose task it is to tell stories that have not yet been remembered in the heart of our country’s capital. “Many monuments were created to tell a particular story of American unity at the expense of our very difficult history of segregation, colonization, LGBTQ discrimination, and slavery,” says Salamishah Tillet, one of the exhibition’s curators and a professor of African American Studies and creative writing at Rutgers University and Pulitzer Prize-winning critic for New York Just.

Tillet and Paul Farber, co-curator of the exhibition and director of Monument Lab, a non-profit public arts and history organization, were inspired by events etched in our national memory but not lastingly honored at the mall: the exhibition of the AIDS Quilt in 1987, Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, Anderson’s performance on Easter Sunday. “These events are just as important as what’s made of granite in the mall,” Tillet said.

She and Farber wanted to work with artists who could strike a balance between democracy and dissent. The resulting works stand out from the sea of ​​granite, marble, and limestone fixtures across Washington because of their creators’ use of unconventional materials such as musical compositions, glass, and landscape edging tools. “Monuments can be impressive, but they can also be cold and uninviting,” says Farber. “These monuments intervene with color and layered stories in the landscape. You are encouraged to touch them, engage with them, be near them and activate them.”

Below is how the six featured artists decided to celebrate those storied names and events that are yet to be set in stone at The Mall.

Tiffany Chung, For the living (2023). Mixed media earthworks.
Photo: AJ Mitchell/ AJ Mitchell Photography

Chung is known for her cartographic drawings, sculptures, and videos, and her contribution to the exhibition is a world map criss-crossed with hundreds of colored rope lines depicting the routes taken by Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian refugees when they were forced to flee their homes the end of the Vietnam War. For the living is fixed to the ground near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which Chung finds beautiful but problematic because it only commemorates death, and American deaths at that. “We’ve had almost 2 million deaths in Vietnam on both sides – North and South – not counting Laotians and Cambodians, and this exhibition is an opportunity to go in and try to insert a piece of our history,” she says.

Chung also viewed attending the exhibition as an opportunity to commemorate the survivors of the war, many of whom languished in refugee camps after the conflict. “Growing up in Vietnam after the war, at least when I was young, I never saw any monuments that really commemorated the people who went through it,” she says.

Wendy Redstar, The floor you see… (2023). Glass and granite rocks.
Photo: AJ Mitchell/ AJ Mitchell Photography

Red Star’s memorial—a seven-foot-tall red glass thumbprint in Constitution Gardens—represents their Apsáalooke (crow) ancestors, who went to Washington and negotiated with the government to keep their community and culture alive. The fingerprint is engraved with the names of the 50 Apsáalooke chiefs who signed treaties between 1825 and 1880. If they hadn’t fought and done what they could, my experience would have been completely different,” she says. Growing up on a Montana reservation, Red Star wanted to see more Indigenous stories centered around DC. “Apart from the National Museum of the American Indian, there really isn’t an Indigenous representation anywhere else in the Mall, so I wanted to be part of it. I’m up for the challenge,” she says.

Ashon T Crawley, Go home (2023). Mixed media sound installation.
Photo: AJ Mitchell/ AJ Mitchell Photography

Crawley’s Go home, located on the south campus of the Washington Monument, is a three-part musical composition honoring black queer musicians who have died after living with AIDS. The work consists of several stages spread over the lawn with loudspeakers underneath. The composition includes choral music, accompanied by a Hammond organ, and includes a reading of the first names of some of the deceased. “As a young person I noticed the disappearance of so many musicians, singers and choir directors, and yet in the religious context no one really spoke out about the loss other than saying that people are dying of AIDS and AIDS is deserved because of their sinfulness,” says Crawley. “There wasn’t really any reason to really honor her.” The musician and professor of religious studies and African American and African studies at the University of Virginia said he hopes those who interact with the work will understand the importance of being involved dealing with grief and loss.

Vanessa German, From we sing you (2023). Steel, resin and archival photographs.
Photo: AJ Mitchell/ AJ Mitchell Photography

As German set about erecting a memorial to honor black women unhonored in American history, she couldn’t stop thinking about Anderson’s accomplishment. “Something that really stuck in my heart was what she said in her speech thanking the people who came to her performance: ‘Please try to imagine all the things I’m not going to say can.’ That was of central importance,” says German.

Known for her sculptures, immersive installations and performances, the artist created a towering sculpture of Anderson singing with “an open heart and open arms.” “It’s three-dimensional,” says German. “People have to walk around it. You have to move your body in circles.” She created Anderson’s skirt from blue glass bottles used by the Gullah Geechee, descendants of enslaved Africans, to trap evil spirits. German also wrote the sheet music of one of the songs Anderson sang at the concert, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” along the trim of Anderson’s blouse. The base of the sculpture is a black and white image of the crowd that came to support the singer, and Namibian Sandhof Lilies grow on the base. The lilies bloom only every few years in perfect conditions – a reminder of a rare moment when Americans of different races came together to celebrate despite their differences.

derrick adams, America’s Playground: DC (2023). Powder-coated steel, polymer-printed plate and thermoplastic vulcanizate (surface).
Photo: AJ Mitchell/ AJ Mitchell Photography

Baltimore-born artist Derrick Adams, whose work focuses on blackness in America, has trawled through local archives to bring his memorial to life. He used a black-and-white photo of one of the first desegregated playgrounds in the borough as an anchor to create a full-size playground on the east side of Constitution Gardens. Half of the playground is painted gray, the other half is colorful; The two sides are bridged by an archway showing an enlarged version of the photograph. The shared playground represents a moment when the country was filled with hope and opportunity, says Adams. “Kids will have a chance to engage with the structure and take away what they can digest,” he says. “But the adults accompanying the children will understand the politics and history surrounding the picture.”

Paul Ramirez Jonas, Let freedom ring (2023). Steel, bronze, 32 automatic bells, contestant activated bell and patriotic song.
Photo: AJ Mitchell/ AJ Mitchell Photography

Bells are typically hung high in towers, out of reach, or displayed on the ground, filled with cement, and not intended to be rung. Ramirez Jonas, who often encourages viewers to participate in his works, wanted to help change that Let freedom ring, located off the Smithsonian Metro on 12th Street. The work mimics a clock tower and features an automated chime that plays 41 of the 42 notes in “My Country Tis of Thee,” which Anderson also sang during her Easter Sunday performance. Visitors can ring the bell at the base of the sculpture to play the final note of the patriotic melody. “I hope people will say, ‘Well, what does that mean?’ “This song is not complete without me, just as the promise of our country is incomplete without my participation,” says Ramirez Jonas.


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