How can art bridge America’s racial divide? How can it empower underrepresented black voices? How can it encourage productive conversations leading to greater understanding and equality?
Alexandria, Virginia finds out this year through the work of Nigerian born, Brooklyn-based artist Olalekan Jeyifous’ whose installation, Wrought, Knit, Labors, Legacies, was unveiled in the city’s Waterfront Park in March.
Wrought, Knit, Labors, Legacies’ concept frames Alexandria’s African-American history through the lens of the city’s industrial and merchant history from the 17th to 20th centuries. Once a prosperous port city home to one of the largest domestic slave trading firms in the country, Alexandria was a major center for shipping and manufacturing with an economy inextricably tied to the work of enslaved and free African-Americans.
“The most surprising thing was that it was the site of the largest domestic slave trade in the U.S.,” Jeyifous told Forbes.com when asked about researching the project. “I’d been so familiar–a lot of us, we always think of the transatlantic slave trade–and don’t consider the slave trade within the continental United States, with that against the backdrop of this beautiful waterfront city…its proximity to (Washington) D.C. (less than 10 miles), as well as a gateway to the South, made it an interesting city to think about.”
Despite spending part of his childhood in Washington, D.C., Jeyifous was unfamiliar with Alexandria before starting on the installation.
He is the second artist to create an annually rotating work for the park. It’s important to city officials that the artists chosen become informed about Alexandria’s history and people. A site visit is required before work begins.
“They tour the site, we take them all over the city, all over the waterfront, they meet with our city historians, they meet with folks that live and work on the waterfront,” Diane Ruggiero, who heads Alexandria’s Office of the Arts, told Forbes.com. “(Jeyifous) getting to understand Alexandria and who we are as a city, who we are as a community of people, we want that to inform his artwork; we don’t want an artist who’s designing an artwork for us for a site they’ve never been to and for a community of people they’ve never met.”
The park where Wrought, Knit, Labors, Legacies stands had a building on it only two years ago. The city purchased the property, took down the building, converted it to a park and developed a program to place a new, temporary art exhibit on the grounds each year.
From the outset, the park’s design was meant to be temporary. Flood mitigation work which needs to occur on property will eventually cause its removal.
As Jeyifous began thinking about the installation, he wanted to take on the way Americans compartmentalize the nation’s story.
“We tend to separate these histories–the slave owning history from general U.S. History–it’s almost like slavery is set aside as a very different history… there’s nothing shameful about confronting this reality and looking at the evolution of a place like Alexandria in its entirety,” Jeyifous said. “The shame and embarrassment comes from trying to not be open about this history and the reality of this history and sanitizing it.”
Nowhere is this history more connected than Alexandria.
“These histories are inextricably woven, it’s one history, and the history of the slave trade is absolutely essential to the merchant history of Alexandria,” Jeyifous said. “Slaves were simultaneously commodities just like wheat and hemp, they were literally a commodity and part of the labor force; they were on the docks, loading and unloading commodities while being commodities.”
In short order, Wrought, Knit, Labors, Legacies has already made a positive impact on its host city.
“There was an African-American group of folks who walked by, people of different ages, one of the younger folks in the group, who I would guess was in the teenage range, they were so excited to see figures that looked like them and to see themselves represented in the artwork,” Ruggiero recalls when she and Jeyifous were on site as the work was being installed. “There’s not a lot of representation of people of color in public artwork and we’re really proud to have that opportunity here, I think an audience of people are going to see themselves in a really positive way that maybe they don’t always get.”
For Jeyifous, the project’s aim is not to make observers forget about race, rather think about race in a productive context.
“There’s a phrase people use, ‘I’m colorblind, I don’t see color,’ I think that does more to discourage harmony than saying, ‘I see you, I see your background, I see your history, I see these differences, but I see we are connected by being part of this very diverse fabric that makes up the United States,’” Jeyifous said. “Acknowledging these things in a way where it’s not shameful to discuss it, it’s not incendiary to be honest about certain realities, we can then move forward with a more equitable society.”
Ruggiero believes the work will create that discussion.
“I think he’s done a really good job prompting some of the questions about Alexandria’s history,” she said. “It’s been really great to see such a well-crafted contemporary work of art that really talks about some of these deeper questions and histories about the community.”
Wrought, Knit, Labors, Legacies can be seen at Alexandria’s Waterfront Park until November.