Men on horseback. Men with weapons. We’ve had enough of the usual statues.
Philadelphia has a fresh take on public art: An 8-foot Afro pick topped with a raised fist, All Power to All People. A faceless, genderless Monument to New Immigrants. A mash-up of pedestals sans sculpture called If They Should Ask, spotlighting the absence of women monuments.
You can savor the city’s twenty eye-catching creations the through November 19. The artworks are part of Monument Lab: A Public Art and History Project, which asks, “What is an appropriate monument for the current city of Philadelphia?”
Given this year’s attention to outdated Civil War statues, Philadelphia’s question is timely, but Monument Lab has been working on this project for five years. I hope more people start seeing public art and asking questions. What is a monument that matters? Who are we honoring? Who are we ignoring? Why?
Statues tell stories, about who matters and who doesn’t. In Philadelphia, William Penn is top dog, or at least top statue. No building in center city can be taller than Penn’s statue atop City Hall. Penn is part of Philadelphia’s history, as is Frank Rizzo, a racist police chief and mayor, whose statue may not remain long in the city.
I thought about Philadelphia’s history as I stood across from City Hall recently, watching people taking selfies by Hank Willis Thomas’s 800-pound Afro pick. A group of young African American men smiled broadly for the camera. Then two women took their turn, then another, then another. No one glanced at a massive sculpture, Government of the People, hulking just a few feet from the All Power to All People pick.
What makes a hair pick art? Maybe the same thing that makes a spoon art. People connect with ordinary objects, especially those made in dramatic fashion. The Black Power comb makes a necessary statement when so many people, including the president, don’t understand that black lives matter.
In Philadelphia’s City Hall courtyard, ordinary people become the art. Mel Chin’s Two Me lets people step up to the pedestal, literally, and become the monument. I watched a little boy who just wanted to run up and down the long ramp, and a young woman in hijab stand up, tentative but smiling, atop the pedestal.
Monumental messages can come from simple stuff. A spoon, a cherry. A comb, a fist. The ordinary becomes iconic. Monuments that stay with us, that matter.