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Derrick Adams

Visitors who descend on the National Mall in Washington, DC, later this summer will encounter several new artworks that engage with histories of the United States unacknowledged in the marbled monuments around them. Made by artists including Wendy Red Star, vanessa german and Derrick Adams, the six contemporary installations are part of Pulling Together, an exhibition curated by the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Monument Lab intended to raise questions about public memory, historical records and the role of civic spaces.

Opening 18 August, the month-long exhibition will place artworks across the two-mile expanse of the Mall, the country’s most visited national park. At one end, by the bustling Smithsonian metro stop, will stand Paul Ramírez Jonas’s Let Freedom Ring (2023), an arching bell tower that visitors can play. On the other end, by the Lincoln Memorial Plaza, will rise a statue of the famed contralto Marian Anderson by vanessa german. Scattered in between will be a memorial to the Aids crisis by Ashon T. Crawley; a monument to Apsáalooke nation chiefs by Wendy Red Star; an interactive playground by Derrick Adams that reflects on desegregation; and an outsize map by Tiffany Chung that honours the journeys of Southeast Asian immigrants, which will lie next to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Each installation represents an artist’s response to the project’s central prompt: “What stories remain untold on the National Mall?” The question of commemorated histories is one that grounds the work of Monument Lab, which aims to facilitate dialogue about the meaning and future of inherited symbols amid polarising debates about public monuments in the US.

“​​Our hope is this prompt and the exhibition pushes a greater understanding of what monuments can be—beyond granite and not always bronze, and also reveal what is missing and what is already made visible on a space as dynamic and diverse as the National Mall,” co-curators Paul Farber and Salamishah Tillet say.

They add: “The twin themes that many of these artists explore, such as absence and presence; exclusion and inclusion; and displacement and belonging, are not just important for our conversations about the Mall, but shape many of public spaces and private conversations throughout the country today.”

A core inspiration for Pulling Together is the 1939 Easter concert by Marian Anderson on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, a momentous occasion that drew a crowd of around 75,000 but to this date has no historical marker at the site. Anderson, a Black classical singer, had been barred from performing at Constitution Hall because of her race; she instead sang outdoors before an integrated audience.

For her contribution german, who grew up with a mother devoted to Black opera singers and remembers watching Anderson on public television, chose to fully chronicle this history through her sculpture. Titled Of Thee We Sing (2023), it portrays a singing Anderson made of found glass bottles, surrounded by flowers and raised arms. Below her is a cutout of an archival photograph of the crowd, positioned to gaze at the sculpture’s viewers.“The images of the crowd of the Easter Sunday concert are fascinating,” german says. “You would see a little Black boy with a flat cap next to an old weathered-faced white man who looks like he’s from American Gothic, crammed next to two Black women wearing Sunday church hats, crammed next to an old fat Black man who looks like he's doing the best he can to keep standing, crammed next to three white women and their children. It was really a picture of America in such close proximity and focused—focused on this Black figure and on her song.”

She adds, “For me, the story that was missing was a story of love—the original thread of human technology. That concert, if you want to see what a reckoning is, what reconciliation is, it’s that story.”

Pulling Together is the pilot exhibition of a programme spearheaded by the Trust for the National Mall that reconsiders the expansive park’s historicised landscape through art. The philanthropic partner of the National Park Service, the Trust invited Monument Lab to propose a roster of artists who have shown a dedication to topics such as civic participation, democracy and dissent; six were ultimately chosen, with their concepts reviewed by an advisory board and federal officials.

Notably, the programme, dubbed Beyond Granite, unfolds as plans for a new memorial on the National Mall dedicated to the Global War on Terrorism advance. Last week, the foundation leading that project announced that it has selected Marlon Blacwell Architects to design the privately funded memorial.

The Pulling Together exhibition will be the National Mall’s first curated outdoor exhibition in its history. Given the site’s prominence, organisers are ramping up educational efforts to provide context for the works. More than 30 local artist educators and facilitators will be stationed around the Mall to answer questions and invite visitors to share their own responses to the works.

Citing the recent racist vandalism of Tschabalala Self’s sculpture of a Black woman in England, german said that she was “a little scared” about the fate of her work, adding, “I’m aware of how the Black body in present public spaces is assaulted in different ways.” But she noted that the curators have planned for what she calls “a full museumification” of the space, with comprehensive security throughout the day. “It’s about public trust, right? For me, the work is always about what is the most loving. Can this institution be loving? Can this be a loving space? Is there space for love on the National Mall?”

To broaden the conversation beyond the site of the nation’s capital, Monument Lab is in the process of arranging for the works to be restaged elsewhere after the exhibition closes on 18 September. The sculpture by german already has a confirmed next stop after the Lincoln Memorial, at the Frick Pittsburgh, as has Wendy Red Star’s The Soil You See… (2023), which has been acquired by the Tippet Rise Art Center in Stillwater County, Montana.

“The intentions, hopes and visions of all of these artists enable us a way to move forward while looking back and give us new opportunities to courageously and creatively contend with our living histories,” Farber and Tillet say.

Pulling Together, 18 August-18 September, National Mall, Washington, DC

Written by Claire Voon

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