Just ahead of Juneteenth (now an official federal holiday), Shadow of a Face, a proposed monument honoring abolitionist Harriet Tubman designed by architect Nina Cooke John, has been selected to replace a statue of Christopher Columbus that once stood at Washington Park in Newark, New Jersey. The Columbus statue, one of two in Newark, was removed in June 2020.
The Kingston, Jamaica-born Cooke John, founder of multidisciplinary architecture and design practice Studio Cooke John, beat out four other finalists in the running to design the Tubman monument for Washington Park. The space will be renamed Harriet Tubman Square once the monument is installed at the National Register of Historic Places-listed urban green space in the heart of downtown Newark at some point next year.
The other final proposals, first revealed to the public in early March, were: Harriet’s Bridge by Abigail DeVille, Keep Going by Dread Scott, Freedom Train by Jules Arthur, and Harriet Tubman on the Road to Freedom by Vinnie Bagwell.
“Nearly one year after our nation’s racial reckoning and just in time for this year’s celebration of Juneteenth, we are proud to announce the design selected for our new Harriet Tubman monument,” Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka said in an announcement revealing the winning proposal. “It is only fitting that we memorialize Tubman’s heroic efforts leading enslaved Africans to freedom via the Underground Railroad at this time of year when we celebrate the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States. Ms. John’s work of public art will be a symbol of hope and optimism for generations to come, not only for our Newark community, but also for the entire country.”
Following a public feedback period, a 14-member selection committee composed of artists, curators, historians, and community stakeholders selected the winning design. As previously noted by AN, the jury, led by fayemi shakur, the City of Newark’s Arts and Cultural Affairs director, took community feedback into consideration during the selection process. The Cultural Assets Management team at Bloomberg Associates, the pro-bono municipal consulting arm of Bloomberg Philanthropies, provided support for both the community feedback and artist selection processes.
As described in Baraka’s announcement, Shadow of a Face will take the form of a circular, multi-sensory site in which visitors can connect at eye level with a monumental profile of Tubman “on a foundational wall where her face will be reflected in a mosaic made of large ceramic pieces.” As detailed by the city, the texture of the mosaic will be repeated at different scale on the ground and inner walls of the monument; text will also highlight important dates in the life of Tubman as well as the names of safe houses along the Underground Railroad located in New Jersey.
As part of the Harriet Tubman Monument Project, the organizers stipulated that the winning artist-and-or-designer will work in collaboration with a Newark-based artist who will serve as project apprentice and aid in community engagement efforts and research. For Shadow of a Face, Adebunmi Gbadebo will act as an apprentice to Cooke John. As detailed on her website, Gbadebo, whose work is included in the permanent collections of several major museums such as the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, “creates sculptures, prints, and paper that reflect on the legacy of specific sites of slavery and incorporate hair sourced from people of the African diaspora.”
“As a woman, a Black woman, and mother of three girls, I am delighted to bring my memorial for Harriet Tubman to life in Newark,” said Cooke John, who is currently based in Montclair, New Jersey.“My design creates a welcoming space for people to connect with Tubman as well as interact and reflect on their own liberation from whatever weight they might be carrying. This is a monument for the community and by the community.”
Newark residents can also have their family names or organizations included in the design process via donations to Newark Arts, the agency serving as the fiscal sponsor of the Harriet Tubman Monument Project.
Born into slavery in 1832 in Maryland, Tubman went on to become the most famous “conductor” along a covert network of routes and safe houses established by antislavery activists to help enslaved African Americans escape from the South during the early- to mid-19th century. Newark, one of the oldest cities in the United States, served as a key stop on this oft-perilous north-bound passage to freedom.
“Nina’s design uniquely blends the abstract with realism and reimagines what a monument can be and who it represents,” said Salamishah Tillet, a professor at Rutgers University-Newark and contributing critic-at-large for the New York Times who served as a juror on the selection committee. “Through her concept, she’s actively created a place where the community can gather, remember, learn, and even rest. Such spaces are rare and necessary now more than ever.”