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‘How Do You Just Give Away Half a Million Dollars’: Black Philadelphia Artists Call Selection Process of White Artist to Sculpt Harriet Tubman Statue Unfair

Black artists in Philadelphia are outraged the city has chosen a white artist to pay tribute to abolitionist Harriet Tubman with a new permanent statue slated to stand before City Hall in 2023.

“Without our city council voting on it, how do you just give away half a million dollars?” asked Maisha Sullivan-Ongonzo of the city’s decision to limit access to a public arts project honoring Tubman.

Sullivan-Ongonzo is a community activist and a multimedia artist who calls Philadelphia home. On the bicentennial celebration of American abolitionist Harriet Tubman, the city of Philadelphia brought in the traveling statue “Journey to Freedom” created by Wesley Wofford and featuring Tubman. It stood outside City Hall from January to March 31 of this year. According to a city spokesman, the statue garnered 4 million people reacting positively to the sculpture, which influenced the city to go against usual protocol and bypass an open call for the public art project worth $500,000, to include a wide pool of capable and diverse artists.

“Even though it’s a great statue and she said how it moved everyone and nobody else can do that, I said, ‘Most artists can do that; I’m an artist.’ I said, ‘Most artist, if you give them what they need, we can get that kind of emotive feeling from people; that’s what good artists do,’ ” said Sullivan-Ongonzo.

Sullivan-Ongonzo is upset with the city barring many Black artists from taking a shot at sculpting Tubman for all to see. She is also bothered by the artist selected, Wesley Wofford, who is white.

“It’s his race and it’s the process and when you combine it together you get a 100% of a bad process,” Sullivan-Ongonzo expressed as the source of her frustration.

Since the city announced Wofford as the artist who will be commissioned $500,000 to design the permanent statue of Tubman in June, a war of words with racial undertones has emerged, especially on social media between Sullivan-Ongonzo and Wofford.

“It reminds me of the plantation. She’s back on the plantation; she escaped the plantation so that her body, her worth would not be controlled by somebody white and that’s how it feels to me,” lamented Sullivan-Ongonzo.

Wofford shared that, “the line, ‘I’m the plantation owner’ ” bothers him.

Wofford added that his career, which encompasses both film and the arts, includes working with the likes of Tyler Perry, Martin Lawrence and Chris Rock as a prosthetic makeup artist. He also sculpts statues, including the ones in his studio, many of which include women of color. He disputes claims he is simply profiting off Tubman’s legacy, claiming his traveling statue costs him $40,000 to create and says it will take him years to pay off.

“We still have debt due to the initial investment of casting that bronze; we still owe money on that,” said Wofford.

Wofford says he feels caught in the middle of a deeper fight ongoing between city leaders and Black artists in the City of Brotherly Love.

“As a white male, how should I react to that? Should my response be, no, I only sculpt white males? I have a group of Black community members in Philadelphia who’s saying, we want you to come and work for us and let us channel our messaging to you to make one of these statues for our community, and then I have another part of the community saying, we want you to resign and I’m really stuck in the middle, and it’s not my fight, I think it’s a dialogue they need to have within themselves,” Wofford said of the controversy surrounding the selection of the Tubman sculptor.

A city of Philadelphia spokesperson sent Atlanta Black Star a statement on its decision to block other artists from competing for the $500,000 commission for a permanent Tubman statue and selecting Wofford.

“Selecting Wesley Wofford to create the permanent Harriet Tubman statue is a result of the four million people who reacted positively and shared images of Wofford’s temporary sculpture Harriet Tubman: Journey to Freedom, commenting on the beauty and likeness of the statue and expressed how deeply the statue made them feel.”

“The City would typically do an open call for artists for a public art project such as this and look for a wide variety of original ideas, visions, and expressions from a diverse pool of artists.”

“This is a unique situation where the City is not starting from the beginning. The commissioning of Philadelphia’s permanent Harriet Tubman statue is a continuation of Harriet Tubman’s story that was inspired by Wofford’s The Journey to Freedom. Philadelphia would not be commissioning this permanent Harriet Tubman statue if not for the public’s positive response to Wofford’s temporary statue.”

The city’s response does not sit well with Black artists blocked from honoring Tubman with their own version of her statue to be displayed before City Hall. Although it is unlikely to happen, the Black artists want the city to restart the commission process to select a sculptor entirely.

“This is supposed to be a public arts project, with public dollars and now they’re trying to make it seem like it’s a curated project and they’re curating him and his work, that’s all they want, and you can’t do that with tax dollars,” said Sullivan-Ongonzo.

Tubman, best known for using the underground railroad to help enslaved men and women escape to freedom, has been recognized with special ceremonies across the country and world this year as it marks 200 years since she was born.

Tubman’s ties to Philadelphia include her residing in the city in 1855, for six years. “She lived and travelled through Philadelphia and Cape May, NJ working in hotels and club houses as a domestic to save money for her journeys. She frequented Underground Railroad stops including being a regular visitor at the home of Philadelphian William Still, visiting the Johnson House in Germantown, and speaking at Mother Bethel AME Church. She developed a reputation as a liberator and made friends with powerful reformers, including Lucretia Mott, an abolitionist and women’s rights advocate. Through her, she met many other activists including Frederick Douglass,” according to The Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy.

As of now, Philadelphia will take feedback from a citywide survey to determine the theme of the permanent Harriet Tubman statue Wofford will use to craft the final sculpture. The themes include: “Lifting as we Climb,” “Lessons from Harriet” and “Overcoming Adversity.”

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