As one of the nation’s oldest public spaces and a central meeting place in Newark, Military Park houses an array of monuments honoring historical figures and events. Rutgers University–Newark’s Salamishah Tillet, Co-Director of the Price Institute and founder of arts-and-activism incubator New Arts Justice Initiative, was quite familiar with the towering bronze statue anchoring the park, having grown up in and around the city.
Depicting 42 figures in the midst of struggle on and off the battlefield and elevated on a large granite base, “Wars of America” is flanked by a triangular field of grass embossed by a Tudor-sword flower bed extending southward toward Raymond Boulevard. Renowned sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who created the piece in 1926, said at the time that the work represents “the American nation at a crisis, answering the call to arms” across the span of its history.
But it wasn’t until many years later that Tillet discovered that Borglum, later known for creating Mount Rushmore, was affiliated with the Klu Klux Klan and espoused the scientific racialism popular during the early 20th century. He also imported part of the granite base for “Wars of America” from Stone Mountain in Georgia, where he was building a Confederate monument.
Tillet and her colleague Paul Farber, co-founder of Monument Lab, an independent public art and history studio based in Philadelphia, saw an opportunity to challenge Borglum’s “call to arms” with “A Call to Peace,” a six-week exhibition of alternative public installations by local artists in Military Park and Express Newark that answers the question “What is a timely monument for Newark?” Sparking a conversation on public spaces, historical memory, race and other issues, the project, which runs October 3 through November 11 (Veterans Day), includes weekly talks by scholars and activists, along with a research engagement lab in Military Park staffed by artists and educators asking the public to contribute their own monument proposals. The team will collect their responses and add them to an open database, posted on a community board in Express Newark, and shared as a report to the city in 2020.
We sat down with Tillet recently to discuss her ambitious project.
When did you get the idea for “A Call to Peace,” and how did it come into being?
Last fall when I arrived on campus, I was very interested in working with Paul Farber of Monument Lab and curating an inside and outside public art project in the city of Newark. I was one of the early speakers for Monument Lab's first project and was impressed by the thoughtfulness of their approach and timeliness and urgency of their 2017 citywide exhibition in Philadelphia on the eve of the Charlottesville's protest. At the same time, Paul and I both became interested in Gutzon Borglum's "Wars of America" monument in Military Park but in different ways. He was fascinated by its size, its prominence in the park, and Borglum's vexed politics. I was curious about how everyday Newarkers—people who live in the city or commute here—engage the park and whether they knew about the monument's life or Borglum's own past and Ku Klux Klan affiliation. And if they did, what did it mean to them? And if they didn't, what could it mean? Our title is our response to Borglum, whose declared the monument was a "call to arms." Playing off his words, "The Newark Sunday Call," the name of one of our country's earliest independent newspapers born here, and Amiri Baraka's famous line, "a call to black people," we thought a project that imagines 'peace' as a goal and a process would be an homage and would wrestle with these histories converging.
This project is part of the ongoing national conversation around Confederate statues and their place in modern America. Can you explain how it fits into this broader dialogue and where you—and the project—come down on the issue of removing those statues?
I am invigorated by our deep civic engagement with these monuments today. I think it is important to know that many of those confederate monuments were up not in the immediate years after the South lost the war but commissioned and erected in the early 20th century to celebrate Jim Crow or stave off the rise of
"What is a timely monument for Newark?" is the beginning of a bigger conversation in our city, not just about "Military Park" but our relationship between race, gender and public space in Newark and beyond.
the Civil Rights movement. So, these debates over the monuments are really cultural and political fault lines about belonging and citizenship. In my book, Sites of Slavery: Citizenship and Racial Democracy in the Post-Civil Rights Imagination, I argued that our memories of slavery, and by extension the Civil War, are not simply about the past but how we see ourselves in the present and wish to see ourselves in the future. Those confederate monuments are glaring reminders that American democracy was born by denying the majority black people the right to read and write, vote, move freely, earn and be recognized as human. That Borglum used the granite from his own confederate monument in Stone Mountain, Ga., in the base of "Wars of America" is a telling sign of how long the arm of slavery stretched in the North, in Newark, and still shapes how black people and non-black people interact today.
Your project emerges as park organizers are in the process of refurbishing the statue and updating the story told about it, including Borglum. Has New Arts played a role in that, or otherwise engaged the city on this?
Public art at its best comes about through collaboration and community. Our advisory board for this project includes Mayor Ras Baraka and Jessica Sechrist, the director of Military Park, not just because they have been ideal civic partners but because both the Mayor and Military Park are deeply invested in ensuring that people who live in this city feel safe in our parks and public spaces. I hope a "Call to Peace" and dynamic artists —Manuel Acevedo, Chakaia Booker, Sonya Clark and Jamel Shabazz—that we have chosen to respond to the big question, "What is a timely monument for Newark?" is the beginning of a bigger conversation in our city, not just about "Military Park" but our relationship between race, gender and public space in Newark and beyond.
This project is about revisiting history and re-imagining public spaces to be more inclusive. Do you think any of the monument ideas your team is collecting from the public stand a chance of being built and integrated into Military Park?
Hopefully. But I think the very process of having people share their ideas and imagine collaboratively is how public art should be made and, even more importantly, how democracy should live.
Thank you very much for taking the time to talk with us.
“A Call to Peace” includes talks every Thursday at various locations. Most will take place at the corrugated cube housing the project’s research engagement lab, right next to the “Wars of America” statue. In the event of rain, these talks will be held at the NJ Historical Society, on the east side of Military Park at 52 Park Place. See project schedule for more details.