By Maria Rocha-Buschel
A new sculpture designed as a companion piece to the George Washington monument at Union Square Park was unveiled last Thursday.
The abstract, steel structure, titled “Washington 20/20/20” and created by artist Kenseth Armstead, references the 20 percent of the colonial population that were enslaved Africans, the 20,000 slaves in New York State in 1776 when Washington retreated from New York City and the 20 percent of Washington’s army that was African at Yorktown, Virginia, when he ultimately defeated the British in 1781. The piece was installed around the pedestal of the Washington monument at the park’s south end.
“This piece will spark fascinating discussions about representation, as well as racial and social justice in our country,” Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver said at the sculpture’s debut. “We are proud to count it among the thousands of public artworks exhibited in the 50-year history of Park’s public art program Art in the Parks.”
Armstead’s design was inspired by frescoes from Tiebele, Burkina Faso, an isolated village where every home is hand-painted and where the royal court of the Kassena people is located.
The sculpture is a perforated and painted steel adornment to the granite base of the existing monument, which was the first statue ever placed on New York City parkland.
The piece is part of a larger ongoing series by Armstead titled “Father Land,” which explores the African-American experience in the American Revolution.
Armstead said at the unveiling of “Washington 20/20/20” that his main inspiration for the piece was a poem written by Phillis Wheatley, a former slave and the first published African American poet, called “To His Excellency, General Washington.”
The poem praised Washington as a brave leader who could lead the colonies to victory in the Revolutionary War. Armstead said that he was moved by Wheatley’s bold action in writing to Washington, and was impressed that Washington responded.
“Seeing George Washington and history from the view point of Africans in the revolution allows us to face the best part of American history,” he added. “From day one, this land has always been fought for and preserved by a diverse cast of characters. That is why I made this transparent African-inspired façade and that’s also why Phillis Wheatley sent Washington a poem. She sent her art to convince the most influential general in the world that Africans deserved to be fully included in the idea of the American dream. We are still fighting to be seen as equal and even to simply have our standards of beauty accepted and respected. This park, this home, this monument and my intervention together allow us to see one complicated, integrated, history.”
The piece will be on view in the park through October.