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Philly leaders under fire for excluding Black artists from $500,000 Harriet Tubman project

Area artists feel cheated since Wesley Wofford was commissioned outright without city requests for sketches or ideas from other creators.

Philadelphia city officials want the public to contribute to the theme of a permanent Harriet Tubman statue, but they’re being called out for not relying enough on the opinions of Black artists and historians ahead of its commissioning.

Philly residents have been asked to respond to a public opinion survey by this Wednesday, July 13, but according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, some area artists feel cheated since Wesley Wofford was given the project outright without city officials requesting sketches or ideas from other creators. Wofford sculpted a mobile statue, Harriet Tubman: The Journey to Freedom, that was previously on display at Philadelphia City Hill.

Harriet Tubman: The Journey To Freedom, the mobile statue by artist Wesley Wofford, is shown on display in February 2020 in Montgomery, Alabama. (Photo: Mickey Welsh via Imagn Content Services, LLC)

“As an artist, it’s hurtful and it is traumatizing,” textile artist Dee Jones told city public art officials at a virtual public meeting in mid-June, per the Inquirer. “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.”

Tubman, born enslaved in Maryland in 1822, was an abolitionist who led at least 70 people to freedom through the network of safe houses and trails that made up the Underground Railroad. She fled to Philadelphia for the first time in 1849.

While the public session was held to solicit opinions on potential themes for the new Tubman statue, it quickly devolved into a heated argument as several participants denounced the $500,000 commission’s process as being unfair and insulting. 

“Nana Harriet risked life and limb to be free so that no one white person would benefit off her person,” said Maisha Sullivan-Ongoza of the Sankofa Artisans Guild at the meeting. “And now we have someone white benefiting off of her.”

Other attendees questioned whether it mattered that Wofford — an Oscar- and Emmy-winning sculptor — was a white man when it came to creating a work of art celebrating the arguably most famous Black woman hero in American history.

Some asserted that Wofford’s race was not the only factor in their opposition to the commission; they were bothered that the prize was “just given to him” instead of there being a selection process. But, according to Sullivan-Ongoza, in this circumstance, the artist’s race is a key factor.

“Now he [Wofford] is renting and selling her from city to city, just like from plantation to plantation,” she told the Inquirer. “It’s just awful, and it enrages me.“

Kelly Lee, the executive director of the Office of Art, Culture and the Creative Economy and Philadelphia’s chief cultural officer, said the city typically makes open calls for public art commissions, and she agreed that it’s crucial to include Black artists and other artists of color as public art creators.

But Wofford was selected, said Lee, because of the “outpouring of love and emotion” from the scores of visitors who came to see the traveling statue, which was on display downtown from early January through March in commemoration of Tubman’s 200th birthday.

“When people saw it, they didn’t focus on who the artist was,” Lee said, per the Inquirer. “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.”

In his remarks at the June 15 meeting, Wofford, whose studio is in Cashiers, North Carolina, acknowledged that Black artists have historically been underrepresented in both public art and art featuring Black issues.

The city wants his commissioned statue, which will be at least nine feet tall, constructed in bronze with a granite foundation, completed by November 2023. Details of the design are still to be determined by the public input process.

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