Later this month, six artist installations will be unveiled on the grounds of the National Mall in Washington D.C. The six commissions draw from the history of underrepresented groups in American history and historical events that took place on the Mall and the surrounding D.C. area.
Pulling Together is the pilot exhibition of the new Beyond Granite initiative, presented by the Trust for the National Mall in partnership with the National Capital Planning Commission and the National Park Service. Beyond Granite is the result of an ongoing conversation on public art and commemoration at the site. It is curated by Salamishah Tillet and Paul Farber of Monument Lab, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit art and history studio. The commissioned artists for the inaugural Beyond Granite initiative are: Derrick Adams, Tiffany Chung, Ashon T. Crawley, Vanessa German, Paul Ramírez Jonas, and Wendy Red Star.
“As Monument Lab, we were invited by the Trust to be the curators of the first exhibition of Beyond Granite, which we’ve titled, Pulling Together as a way for all of the partners to see in action, the ways that art and storytelling can have an impact and adding layers to the Mall,” Farber told AN.
Past events on the National Mall, such as Marian Anderson’s 1939 performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King’s famous speech at the March on Washington, and the AIDS Memorial Quilt installed there in 1987 are among the occasions that informed the exhibition. “We’re inspired by these moments that have endured in the public memory almost as importantly, or as significantly as the monuments that are there for posterity,” Tillet said in an interview with AN. “And so Pulling Together and its title comes from a quote from Mary McLeod Bethune when she was watching Marian Anderson’s performance in 1939. We’re inspired by how she saw that moment as a possibility, or a pulling together of American democracy.”
Tillet and Farber began discussing the gaps in history and representation on the National Mall back in 2011, at the SlutWalk DC, a march in protest of sexual assault and victim blaming. Other past collaborations have included work on Newark’s Military Park in 2019 and serving on the committee for Nina Cooke John’s Harriet Tubman Memorial in Newark, Shadow of a Face.
Based on these central and defining events that took place on the Mall, each artist commissioned for Pulling Together was asked the same question: What histories and stories remain untold on the Mall? The six works are also informed by the personal experiences of the artists and pull from experiences felt by the queer community, indigenous peoples, immigrants, and more. Each installation was thoughtfully and strategically placed around the sprawling landscape to respond to the existing monuments, including Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, and others, so that these temporary monuments can be seen in conversation with their permanent counterparts.
“We’re being led by six remarkable artists, artists who have risen to the occasion, who have pondered deeply about questions of place and belonging, and their projects are as much about the National Mall as they are about their own ancestral lands, home places, spaces of belonging, and engagement. And I think they’re offering something incredibly profound to all of us,” Farber added.
Beyond Granite: Pulling Together will be on display across the National Mall from August 18 through September 18. A series of programming will accompany the exhibition. Each artist will lead an event in accordance with their piece, along with symposia and other conversations that discuss the implications of the works. Throughout the month, D.C.-based artists, educators, and students will provide exhibition visitors with activity books and pose to them the same question posed to the artists—an exercise to further engage viewers and to explore what other histories and stories could be represented on the Mall.
More information on Beyond Granite: Pulling Together can be found here. Descriptions of the artists and their works are below:
Derrick Adams | America’s Playground: DC
Best known for his paintings, Adams also creates interactive displays focused on play, leisure, and joy. Having grown up in Baltimore, Adams experienced the National Mall as a space used for recreation. His installation redefines play and centers on racial inequality with an interactive design based on a desegregated playground.
Tiffany Chung | For the Living
Born in Vietnam and raised in Houston, Texas, Chung focuses her work on the experiences of immigrant and refugee communities, namely the Vietnamese diaspora following the Vietnam War. Similar to her past works, Chung has mapped the routes taken by land and water to show global immigration patterns, specifically to the Washington, D.C. area. The map, sprawled out on the lawn, will be placed across from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to continue a conversation on reconciliation.
Ashon T. Crawley | HOMEGOING
Drawing inspiration from the AIDS Memorial Quilt and local art and music, Crawley has created an audio visual sculpture consisting of a symphonic piece he composed. HOMEGOING references one’s transition from life to death, an alternative phrase for funeral popular in African American Christian communities. The piece will not just mourn the lives of Black men who died of AIDS-related illnesses, but will also illustrate African American spirituality and gospel music.
Vanessa German | Of Thee We Sing
German’s installation (pictured at the top) pays homage to the exhibition’s origin story: Marian Anderson’s 1939 performance outside the Lincoln Memorial. The piece works to honor not just Anderson, but also everything and everyone she represented. It depicts a collaged version of Anderson surrounded by archival images of the crowd and their raised hands that gathered to hear her that day.
Paul Ramírez Jonas | Let Freedom Ring
Known for his monumental interactive sculptures, Ramírez Jonas created Let Freedom Ring in accordance with his usual practice. The work comprises a large bell tower and pulls from Anderson’s performance, Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech, and bells as a symbol of American freedom. The tower will play out every note of the song Let Freedom Ring except for its last, which will need to be provided by a passerby. The interactive work seeks to show that democracy is an incomplete process without the active engagement of the people.
Wendy Red Star | The Soil You See…
Red Star has taken an interest in land ownership, stewardship, and treaties. Her piece honors her heritage as a Crow, a Native American tribe, and its history with the U.S. government. The installation, a nine-foot-tall glass thumbprint references the Crow Chiefs who signed treaties with the U.S. Government using a fingerprint as the binding “signature”. The work will be staged adjacent to the 56 Signers of the Declaration of Independence Memorial with a sightline of the Washington Monument, so that these histories may coexist.