REMEMBERING THE DEAD WITH ART
The African Burial Ground Art Project
By Nicholas Tamarin
The plot of land at 290 Broadway would look just like a well-manicured suburban lawn except for the massive marble federal building that looms over it and the sign placed inside which reads "African Burial Ground and Five Points Archeological Project."
The plot between Duane and Reade streets in lower Manhattan is, in fact, a national historic landmark dedicated to what was once the five-and-a-half-acre Negro Burial Ground. Construction crews discovered it in 1991 when the General Services Administration broke ground on a federal building, only to find the bodies of 427 African-Americans, who were both freemen and slaves. During the 18th century, a time when African-Americans made up 15 to 20 percent of the population, it is estimated that 20,000 bodies were buried at the ground. The site was located outside of the city limits on undesirable land. As the city grew, the ground was eventually forgotten. The uncovering of the site set off a feud, with former Mayor David Dinkins and black community groups demanding the GSA halt construction. The GSA revised its plans for the $276 million dollar building to allow the plot of land where 200 more bodies are buried to remain undisturbed. It is a place "through which our ancestors still speak to us now," says Dr. Sheryl Wilson, head of the federally funded African Burial Ground Project Office of Public Education.
The remains of the original 427 bodies were sent to Howard University in Washington, D.C. for extensive anthropological studies that are still underway. Reburial is expected at the site sometime in 2002. The history of the site as well as its commemoration through public art were subjects at an international symposium on slave routes Oct. 7 in NYU's Vanderbilt Hall. The symposium, officially called "Slave Routes: The Long Memory" was a weeklong affair sponsored by NYU's Institute of African-American Affairs and the Africana Studies Program.
Wilson hosted the panel, with 50 in attendance, along with three of the public artists working on the project: Tomie Arai, Lorenzo Pace and Melvin Edwards.
The crowd was a sea of dreadlocks, dashikis, head wraps, colorful printed mud cloth jackets and other traditional African clothing, listening attentively as each speaker talked about his or her contributions to the site.
Lorenzo Pace, director of the Montclair State University art galleries, came up to the microphone with his white hat, colorful scarf and red shoes, blowing and talking into a flute. "I always try to give honor to my ancestors before I even open my mouth," he said before discussing his sculpture "Triumph of the Human Spirit." It is to be placed in Foley Square in lower Manhattan in April. The $18 million project depicts a boat made of black granite, 60 to 70 feethigh, floating in a pool 80 feet wide, symbolizing the ships that brought slaves from Africa. It also symbolizes the boats which brought over other Americans because, according to Pace, "we are all immigrants." Pace said the piece "will change the way people view public art around the world and those who make it."
Tomei Arai, the New York community artist and activist who made the 90-foot mural that hangs in the lobby of the federal building, described the task as "tremendous and somewhat daunting." The silkscreen mono-print depicts a mountain rising from water, meant to symbolize the ascent of the African-American people from their roots in slavery.
The discussion ended with a plea from Wilson for the public to sign a petition for the burial ground's commemoration on a federal postage stamp. Those wishing to sign the petition or assist in the project may call the burial ground at (212) 432-5707.
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