Thursday, March 28, 2019

Chisholm Trail

I am so excited about having been selected as a finalist for the Shirley Chisholm monument. The voting is April 1, 2019 and as I prepare the last details of my presentation I am filled with honor and gratitude for having had the opportunity to reflect on this outstanding woman's legacy and life. This image pretty much summarizes what this process has been like for me. 

However, last year around this exact time I was also busy preparing for another monument project- I Am Queen Mary. I have taken so many of the things that I learned while working on that collaborative project and brought them into my process in developing this one. For one, how do you create a monument that is about a historical figure that can bring the audience into it? How do you shift the patriarchal and authoritative understanding of monuments to be more inclusive and more expansive? Furthermore, since my practice is rooted in a belief that art can be an investigative tool, a way to engage in dialogue, a platform for thinking and a means to develop knowledge, I wanted to create a project that would do just that while pushing the boundaries of what a monument to a person can be. 

Firstly, I wanted to invite the audience to be a part of the piece with the inclusion of several folding chairs and create a space of gathering and an ability to interact with the monument in various ways. This gesture reimagines her famous quote, "If they don't give you a seat at the table bring a folding chair" and locates it into a larger framework of mobility. This quote speaks to a type of mobility in terms of a flexibility of strategy. However, this strategy also connects to mobility in terms of a journey. It was important for me in reflecting on how does one image someone who lived to be eighty years old to also recognize her journey, her trail. I do that by representing five images of her from childhood to elderhood. They provide a connection to her from different entry points of her life and allow a more complex narrative about where she came from, who she was and where she hoped to be.

Additionally, I think that Chisholm's bold and historic run for the presidency speaks to larger issues of not only who can be the president of the U.S. or what it is to be an American, but also what is possible? What is possible in the promise that is the United States of America?  She challenged us to think about how this petite black woman with a Bajan accent marking her immigrant roots, could represent the promise of the United States both literally and symbolically and how her trail -to use her campaign slogan- could “bring U.S. together”. 

I did quite a bit of research for this proposal in various archives to not just understand her policies and personhood, but specifically her image as that was the only requirement the commission gave us- that her image needed to be in the monument in some fashion. After finding this striking photograph of her wearing the symbol of an eagle it made me think about alinging her with these same American symbols. Wearing an eagle pin she steps boldy into a reenvisioned version of the presidential seal encircled by fifty stars that represent the united fifty states. But there are outliers. As a Virgin Islander it was important for me to signal that the promise of the United States is not fully realized. Chisholm herself spoke of that throughout her campaign in reference to the lack of full political rights for all Americans. However, in my case as someone living in one of the five inhabited territories of the United States with unrealized full citizenship, I wanted to make a small gesture with the five stars that lie outside the union that we are still here advocating for our political rights as well. We too, like America herself, like Chisholm herself, are on a journey to a promise. The metal inlays of the stars and stripes in the floor become symbols of that journey and our unique paths as Americans. 

There were also some things about Ms. Chisholm that spoke to me uniquely. I grew up knowing that she had Bajan roots like I do. However, it wasn't until I began doing the research for the monument and happened upon my first video of her speaking that I realized she also carried the marker of an immigrant. Her very distinguishable Bajan accent that can be characterized as sounding like one has hot rocks in their mouth was the same cadence of my father, my aunt, my grandmother. There was immediately a different connection I had with her and it's what inspired me to want to have the sound of her voice in the monument. I wanted those, especially in the community that the monument is placed in, a community of mostly Caribbean immigrants, to be able to not just see, but hear themselves reflected. 

However there was something else, something unique to black womanhood that becomes evident when faced with the decision of how to image Shirley Chisholm-that of her hair. For many that choice may have seemed obvious as she was often imaged with her iconic wig. However, as I combed her archives I found some images of her when she did not wear that wig, like when at home with her husband, on vacation with him in Jamaica or in certain situations where the kind of respectability that particular wig provided was not needed. When I found the image of her wearing a turban and speaking at a Presbyterian church to an audience of mostly black women that image spoke to me. I knew that she may not have worn a turban on Capitol Hill, but I knew exactly what she was communicating and to whom when she wore that turban. I wanted to open up a conversation about representation and audience as she was very aware and deliberate about what she wore and how she presented herself. I believe the choice of the turban opens up that conversation. 

There are many many choices that go into making a proposal for a monument that will last for as long as this one is expected too. It is not just an exercise in looking back, but in considering the present moment and marking it, and signaling something for the future as well. I believe that monuments can encompass collective narratives and I think the best ones create a space for dialogue and find ways to invite you in. This has certainly been the hope with my proposed monument dedicated to the legacy of Shirley Chisholm. It is also my sincere hope that we may all be inspired by Chisholm Trail


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Chisholm Trail