Philadelphia Under Fire For Hiring White Artist For Harriet Tubman Project

Tubman and Douglass statues unveiled at Maryland State House

Photo: The Washington Post

Philadelphia city officials are facing backlash for the lack of input from Black artists and historians for a $500,000 Harriet Tubman project, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.

City leaders, who are seeking a permanent statue of the abolitionist hero, held a public session to gain opinions from the community about potential themes and design. Reporters say the meeting spiraled into a heated argument with several attendants accusing officials of choosing the artist without consulting Black creators.

Critics allege Wesley Wofford, a white artist who previously sculpted a popular mobile statue of Tubman for the city, was already chosen for the project. Black artists claim they feel the selection process was unfair since Philadelphia leaders didn't reach out to them for sketches or ideas.

"Nana Harriet risked life and limb to be free so that no one white person would benefit off her person,” Maisha Sullivan-Ongoza of the Sankofa Artisans Guild said at the meeting. “And now we have someone white benefiting off of her.”

Textile artist Dee Jones told city public art officials that it wouldn't be a problem if there was a simple change.

"If it was an open call and Wesley was chosen, it would be fine," Jones told leaders last month, per the Inquirer. "But because the process wasn’t open, that’s the big issue.”

Kelly Lee, the executive director of the Office of Art, Culture and the Creative Economy and Philadelphia’s chief cultural officer, agreed they should've included more Black artists in the process. She also says Wofford was selected due to the positive feedback from visitors who came to see his traveling statue of Tubman. The piece, called Harriet Tubman: The Journey to Freedom, was on display in downtown Philadelphia between January and March to commemorate the abolitionist's 200th birthday.

“When people saw it, they didn’t focus on who the artist was,” Lee explains, per reporters. “That statue resonated so deeply. People said it captured her spirit. It captured her essence... I saw people crying when it first arrived and I saw them crying when it was time for it to leave.”

Sullivan-Ongoza feels differently about Lee's sentiment, saying, "[Wofford] doesn’t have a monopoly on being able to capture or express the energy and power that was Nana Harriet Tubman. Most gifted artists are able to generate that kind of emotion."

Philadelphia officials want the bronze, nine-foot-tall statue completed by November 2023.

You can read more about this HERE.

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