The National Mall in Washington, DC, is widely known as a place of controversial memorialization. Defined by its collection of national monuments and imposing federal buildings, the area has historically drawn countless criticisms over its perpetuations of colonialist iconography. The gathering grounds for protest and dissent — such as Marian Anderson’s 1939 Easter Sunday performance, the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, the American Indian Movement’s Longest Walk in 1978, and the 1996 display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt — the National Mall has and continues to be a space where people envision and catalyze change.
In response to the site’s exclusionary history, the Trust for the National Mall invited the public art non-profit Monument Lab to co-curate Beyond Granite: Pulling Together — a month-long outdoor exhibition spotlighting the many untold stories that are absent from the capitol park. Opening today, August 18, and running through September 18, the public art show will feature six “prototype monuments” by artists Tiffany Chung, Derrick Adams, Wendy Red Star, Ashon Crawley, vanessa german, and Paul Ramírez Jonas.
At a time when education on critical race and queer theory is under attack around the country by conservative lawmakers and rightwing lobbying groups, the temporary prototype monuments put overlooked stories deeply rooted in United States history on a national platform. Monument Lab founder Paul Farber, who co-curated Beyond Granite: Pulling Together with art critic and activist Salamishah Tillet, said it was important to work with artists who could “tap into the histories that are present [in the National Mall], and open up possibility in these particular artworks.”
Vietnamese-American artist Tiffany Chung created a color-coded world map display of the Southeast Asian diaspora that resulted from the Vietnam War. Located within distance of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, “For the Living” (2023) traces the boat, land, and air routes taken by refugees and immigrants with blue, orange, and yellow ropes.
In his audiovisual project HOMEGOING (2023), writer and artist Ashon Crawley uses an original musical composition as a medium to memorialize those who have lost their lives to AIDS. Divided into three sections — Procession, Sanctuary, and Benediction — the project specifically focuses on a theme of spirituality and musical traditions within the Black church.
“It’s an homage to Black men who died of AIDS and who were in the Black church. They were disappearing as Ashon was growing up and there was a stigma around what caused their deaths,” Tillet told Hyperallergic, adding that because of this homophobia and problematic notions of Black masculinity, there was silence around the loss of these community members.
Now, Crawley’s audiovisual installation centers this loss of Black queer musicians within the church through his interactive memorial that invites participants to sit, dance, pray, meditate, and honor their lives through vibrant gospel music.
Multimedia artist Paul Ramírez Jonas frequently tackles the concept of monuments and memorialization in his artwork. “I think a monument is kind of violent, because it inscribes public space with permanent ideas,” the artist said in an interview with Hyperallergic. “So how can a monument always absorb new stories and new narratives?”
To address this question, Ramírez Jonas created an interactive bell tower appropriately titled “Let Freedom Ring” (2023) for the exhibition. The steel and bronze structure features 32 automated bells that play “My Country ’Tis of Thee” — one of the songs performed in 1939 by Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial after she was barred from performing at Constitution Hall because she was Black. The song plays in its entirety with the omission of the final note, which is left to participants to ring on a 600-pound bell.
“We’re still building monuments like we were building monuments 2000 years ago: statues with words, walls with lists of names. The formal language of monuments has barely budged, and I think it’s really important to create an update,” Ramírez Jonas said.
Vanessa german’s “Of Thee We Sing” (2023) also focuses on Marian Anderson’s historic performance. On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where Anderson sang to an audience of more than 70,000 people, german created a nine-foot steel-and-resin statue of the opera singer with her image held up by a field of hands and Sandhof lilies. Notes from “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” detail her dress, which is a bright blue to symbolize healing.
In another prototype monument by Derrick Adams, the history of racial oppression and discrimination in the US is confronted through the lens of a children’s playground. Titled “America’s Playground: DC” (2023), the structure is a fully interactive playground rendered half in color, half in grayscale. The installation is split down the middle by a blown-up archival photograph from Edgewood Park in 1954, days after the Supreme Court ruled that the capital city’s segregated schools were unconstitutional.
“When I was walking around, I realized there is zero color on the mall. The monuments are all natural materials, but [the mall] is pretty much void of color,” Wendy Red Star told Hyperallergic. At this time of the year, the Apsáalooke (Crow) multimedia artist is usually on the Crow Reservation in Montana with family and friends for Crow Fair, an annual community cultural event held every third week of August. But this year, the artist is in DC for the opening of Pulling Together.
“For me to do this project, I think about all the sacrifices Native people have had to make, and Washington, DC, is the hub for Native peoples’ experience and existence,” Red Star explained. “This is the first time I missed [Crow Fair] in a long time, but I’m honoring my community and the leaders who fought so that we could still maintain our culture.”
For the exhibition, Red Star created a work that grapples with the US history of Indigenous displacement and land appropriation. Using her right thumb as a model, she designed a massive red glass-and-granite thumbprint sculpture in recognition of the Indigenous leaders and representatives who signed agreements with the US government during the 19th century, which subsequently led to the relocation of Indigenous communities to unfamiliar and frequently faraway reservation lands.
A reference to the 1912 congressional speech by Apsáalooke military scout Curley, “The Soil You See…” (2023) features treaty signatures — usually thumbprints, X’s, and symbols — of the Apsáalooke leaders and representatives between 1825 and 1880. Located on Signers Island in Constitution Gardens, the work is also in dialogue with the nearby memorial to the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence.
After the exhibition is over, the future of the artworks is left up to the artists. Vanessa german’s sculpture will head to the Frick Pittsburgh, whereas Red Star’s sculpture will travel to Southwest Montana, where it will permanently reside at the outdoor sculpture center and concert venue Tippet Rise Art Center. Ramírez Jonas told Hyperallergic that he is currently considering several venues for his monumental bell tower.
“I think what we find over time is no matter what you define or term something as, a monument is in the eye of a beholder,” Farber said.
“We’re in this moment of reimagining and reckoning with our public symbols, but the question that continues to arise is what comes next? These artists have given approaches that they or others will hopefully follow suit on,” Farber said.