Aug 20, 2023 - Culture

New must-see art breaks barriers on the Mall

Wendy Red Star's thumbprint statue on the National Mall

Apsáalooke (Crow) artist Wendy Red Star's installation. Rendering courtesy of Monument Lab

A pioneering art exhibition opens on the National Mall this weekend, created around the question: What stories remain untold on the Mall?

Why it matters: The month-long exhibit, "Beyond Granite: Pulling Together," explores new ways for underrepresented communities to make their imprint on one of the country's most high-profile venues, where space for permanent monuments and museums is limited and costly.

What's happening: Six contemporary artists from around the country created installations for the first curated, multi-artist exhibition on the Mall.

  • Each piece tells a unique American story — often interacting with or responding to an existing monument or historical moment.
  • The Trust for the National Mall and the National Park Service partnered with Philadelphia-based public art nonprofit Monument Lab and others on the project.
  • "We were thinking about moments that were monumental — that were not necessarily represented in bronze or marble, but that are part of the consciousness of the Mall and, by extension, American culture," Monument Lab co-curator Paul Farber tells Axios.

Zoom in: The installations are all outdoors, free, and open to the public (here's a map). They include:

  • "America's Playground: DC": An interactive playground from Brooklyn-based artist Derrick Adams that reflects the story of Washington's desegregated public spaces.
An invitation to play. Photograph by AJ Mitchell Photography
  • "For the Living": Artist Tiffany Chung's map, placed intentionally near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, traces the global routes of Southeast Asian immigrants and refugees.
"For the Living" map. Rendering courtesy of Monument Lab
  • "The Soil You See…": Crow artist Wendy Red Star designed a 7-foot glass fingerprint with the names of the Apsáalooke (Crow) nation chiefs who signed treaties with the U.S. government using a thumbprint. Located in Constitution Gardens, near the memorial to the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
  • "Let Freedom Ring": Paul Ramírez Jonas' interactive bell tower by the Smithsonian Metro encourages passersby to ring a 600-pound bell and share their stories of freedom.
"Let Freedom Ring" sound and art. Rendering courtesy of Monument Lab

The big picture: The exhibition's theme, "Pulling Together," was informed by Black opera star Marian Anderson's 1939 performance at the Lincoln Memorial where she sang "My Country, Tis of Thee" before an integrated crowd of 75,000.

  • Anderson had been barred from performing at segregated Constitution Hall.
  • But her Mall performance "told a story of hope for tomorrow," civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune said at the time, "a story of triumph — a story of pulling together, a story of splendor and real democracy."

Now, vanessa german's collage statue of Anderson, called "Of Thee We Sing," stands on the stop where Anderson sang.

A statue of Black opera star Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial (left) and Marian Anderson's 1939 performance at the Lincoln Memorial (right)
"Of Thee We Sing" statue (left), rendering courtesy of Monument Lab. Marian Anderson's performance. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The exhibition also drew inspiration from the AIDS Memorial Quilt that first appeared in the 1980s.

  • "It wasn't put there in a so-called permanent way, but it's monumental because it impacted the way that we understand ourselves," Monument Lab's Farber tells Axios.
People gather at the AIDS Memorial Quilt on the National Mall in 1996
Visitors to the AIDS Quilt in 1996. Photo: by Ann Zelle/Getty Images)

UVA professor Ashon T. Crawley's audio-visual "Homegoing" installation near the Washington Monument pays homage to Black and Queer musicians who died of AIDS.

"Homegoing" sonic art installation. Rendering courtesy of Monument Lab
"Homegoing" sonic art installation. Rendering courtesy of Monument Lab

What they're saying: "A lot of these works go deep into showing these moments of division, but also compel us," says Monument Lab co-curator Salamishah Tillet.

  • "I think people, when they come to this, can hopefully feel on many levels the healing aspect of the exhibition in this moment of great tension in America."

What to know about visiting: In addition to the installations, welcome stations will be positioned throughout the exhibition run by D.C. artists and educators. There's also a monthlong series of events and programs with each artist.

What we're watching: The National Mall's superintendent Jeff Reinbold called the exhibit "a test" for the Beyond Granite initiative moving forward.

  • "This is a chance to develop a much more cost-effective, faster, and more relevant way to commemorate and acknowledge what's happening in society."

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