As monuments commemorating the Confederacy and other troubling aspects of American history continue to topple across the country, a new generation of artists and architects is charting ways to keep the memory of slavery alive without glorifying it. Two leading voices among them are Mabel O. Wilson—an architect and professor at Columbia University—and Sara Zewde, a landscape architect and assistant professor at Harvard. Wilson, who cocurated “Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York this past spring, is also the author of two books: Begin with the Past: Building the National Museum of African American History and Culture and Negro Building: Black Americans in the World of Fairs and Museums. Zewde runs a New York firm called Studio Zewde, whose projects include a five-acre park in Homewood, a historically Black neighborhood in Pittsburgh, as well as a Houston monument commemorating Barbara Jordan (1936–1996), the first Black congresswoman ever elected in the Deep South. Below, Zewde and Wilson catch up on their most recent activities, and discuss the history and future of memorials.
MABEL O. WILSON Tell me about your current project in Rio de Janeiro.
SARA ZEWDE Forty percent of enslaved Africans who traveled to the Americas passed through Brazil. Millions entered through Valongo Wharf in Rio. Following abolition, landfill operations buried the wharf. Then in 2010, in the lead-up to the Olympics and the World Cup, the wharf was found perfectly preserved six feet below street level. Activists basically told the city’s mayor, you’ve got to come up with a plan for this. So I’ve been working with the city on a memorial project.
The final piece will be a constellation of things across eight different sites. There are no objects on pedestals, no walls with names. Instead, it’s all about making spaces that serve the descendants of enslaved people who live in the neighborhood.
Millions of years ago, before continental drift, Brazil and Africa were part of the same soil region. When Africans arrived in the Americas, they brought the seeds of various plants along with them. Many of those plants hybridized and flourished here. My project makes use of Afro-Brazilian plants that shape today’s landscape. We’ll also have a plaza with a four-inch scrim of water that reflects the sky and creates a microclimate. Another motif is a white fabric wrapped around various furnishings and planters—in Afro-Brazilian tradition, ancestors are thought to gather at the base of ficus trees, and people mark that space by wrapping the trunks in white fabric. There are other elements too, and we’re hoping to get it all built in the next four years.
WILSON How are you finding the conversation around the legacy of slavery there?
ZEWDE I hadn’t really appreciated the many differences before. I often meet with a guy who’s a Movimento Negro [Black Movement] leader here. The last time we met, he was in a tough situation, sleeping on a mattress in a building that had no water. On this trip, I got to see him living in a beautiful loft. His group is doing well. They’ve spawned Black-owned businesses and they’re fighting for changes. I asked him, what happened in the three years since [my last visit]. He said, “if George Floyd had been somewhere having a beer, watching the game . . . I would not be seeing any of this.” He said that Brazilian people have really leveraged this moment to make a lot of advances in racial consciousness—perhaps even more than we have in the United States. They’ve fought for memorials about the legacy of slavery; they’ve secured a lot of grants and donations for cultural institutions; and they’ve gotten support for Black-owned businesses on all fronts. They think that they’ve probably made more progress than any other country in the world. In the United States, there’s been a lot of talk and symbolism and awareness, but in terms of material change, I haven’t seen so much.
WILSON I ask because Brazil has such a different history. I’ve found that Brazilians will say things like, “oh, you know that I have African ancestors, right?” Or, “we’re all one blended, happy family,” without really understanding the work that race does. Fundamentally, we’re all just one species—Homo sapiens—so you have to ask, what is the work of race? What does it do in terms of creating hierarchies of power? In Brazil, these questions manifest very differently. There, income inequality is becoming even more severe—not unlike the United States. I remember going to Bahia, and it was like going to the American South—there were Black folks everywhere. I wondered, there must be some white people somewhere. Then I went to a very posh, chic restaurant one night, and there they were.
ZEWDE The guy that I was just referencing didn’t even know that he was Black until about ten years ago. Apparently, this is common.
WILSON I’m curious if there were any monuments or memorials that had a particular impact on you growing up.
ZEWDE I grew up in New Orleans, in the shadow of the Lee Circle statue of Robert E. Lee [which was removed in 2017]. That one influenced me a lot, in part because I saw its value as a wayfinding tool and a place-making apparatus. It also made me understand how powerful the clear didactic narratives common to traditional monuments can be. This legibility really laid the groundwork for my understanding of what a monument is, because I knew the real narrative was much more complex. How about you?
WILSON I actually don’t remember many monuments or memorials where I grew up in coastal New Jersey, other than the usual World War I or II stone marker that might sit in front of a municipal building. It was when I was a student at the University of Virginia [UVA] that I encountered the landscape that most impacted me. There, everything you touched had some sort of historic value, and the heroism of Thomas Jefferson saturated every facet of our education as architecture students. The traditionalism was intense. I knew there must have been enslaved people around there somewhere, but we didn’t hear or read anything about them in our curriculum. People knew about Sally Hemings, but that’s it. Still, in school, we were constantly being told: history is important, and you should base your architecture on history. And yet, I learned
no Black history. It was very alienating.
ZEWDE In terms of landscapes, I was also definitely influenced by neutral grounds [median strips] in New Orleans. They’re called neutral grounds because they’re strips of land dividing wide boulevards, which often separated different ethnic groups.
WILSON I never knew that—it really shows you how racial and class categories were just part and parcel of how the city was designed, even before official planning or redlining.
The African Burial Ground that was uncovered beneath landfill in Lower Manhattan in 1991 was also incredibly formative for me. By then, I had already become aware of the absence of Blackness in architectural discourse and education. When that site was uncovered, I was enthralled. It was the return of the repressed. The burial ground had been erased off the map. I was eager to see how it would now be marked and historicized. My first published essay was about the site, especially the kind of Black aesthetic practices—assemblage, for example—that one might draw on when making a memorial, as well as the politics behind that entire space. I almost wrote my dissertation on the burial ground, but I decided to analyze exhibitions and museums instead. I was interested in how one can represent Black history and Black culture within an institution largely predicated on the idea that peoples of African descent have no history or culture.
ZEWDE I remember stumbling upon your proposal for that site some time shortly after Katrina—which is when I started to become interested in architecture. That project was very formative for me.
WILSON Our team proposed a garden that would be tended by a community of people. No direct descendants had been identified, but there were people who cared for the site. That’s why we suggested a garden that needed tending. In the end, another proposal was selected—I think the National Park Service and the General Services Administration wanted a design that was easy to maintain. But they didn’t realize that they also needed to cultivate a community to attend to the people buried there. I think that people who remember are the ones who keep history alive, who try to understand its stories and lessons.
ZEWDE You also just finished a memorial in Charlottesville.
WILSON With that project, I realized how difficult it can be to memorialize an event or group whose historical record is scant. We know lots about Thomas Jefferson—in his lifetime, he was written about widely; he was sculpted, painted, and drawn. But as for the enslaved community [involved in building Monticello and UVA], we don’t know how many there were. In many cases, we don’t know their names or their birthdates. So how do you remember someone who was deliberately made invisible?
The UVA students really started the movement to create the memorial, and they’ve pushed the university to reckon with its own history of slavery. By the time the design team—Meejin Yoon, Eric Höweler, Greg Bleam, Frank Dukes, Eto Otitigbe, and I—came together, a committee had already done five years of archival and archaeological work. They also brought in people from the city and connected with descendants of the enslaved community at Monticello. A conflict mediator, Dukes—who teaches in the urban planning department at UVA—was already doing a lot of work to address reparations at the university. So people already understood that we weren’t just memorializing slavery as a thing of the past, but also reckoning with it as something that impacts the present. We learned that the Black community referred to the university as the plantation—rightly so, since many local residents worked there for shit wages, and since many Black people in Charlottesville couldn’t afford to attend UVA. Meanwhile, the university was swallowing the city, raising rents as students pushed further and further into communities. If the [ring-shaped stone plaza] helps people recognize this history and opens up conversations about the university’s relationship with the Black community, then it will have done its job.
When the fence came down in June 2020, we hadn’t yet dedicated the memorial because of Covid. But a Black Lives Matter protest happened there right away, and we thought, OK, this is exactly what we wanted.
ZEWDE That’s the direction I think memorials should go in—they aren’t solely about the past, and this is an important challenge in terms of form and function. That’s one of the strengths of that UVA memorial—it’s actually engaging the everyday life of the university. I really want to see how far we can push that, to the point where maybe the word “memorial” becomes obsolete and we’re not waiting for a commission to get to work.
WILSON Can you tell me about the book you’re working on?
ZEWDE I’m writing about Frederick Law Olmsted’s travels in the American South from 1852 to 1854. The New York Times had commissioned him to write about the conditions of slavery. Historically, he’s usually thought of as this wanderer who wound up popularizing landscape architecture through his Central Park design. But he’s also one of the most frequently
cited witnesses of nineteenth-century slavery. I’ve been spending time with his personal letters, and it’s clear that slavery was at the forefront of his mind throughout his youth. He was torn about the issue and worried about the state of the Union. He writes with great expository detail about everything that he sees on his tours. Retracing his steps, I often found that the place where some horrific torture occurred is now a Bed Bath & Beyond or a bank parking lot. There’s no way to say “this is where slavery happened,” because it was everyday and banal. In some sense, I knew that, but seeing the locales made it really hit home. My book argues that American landscape architecture started on the plantation.
When Olmsted returned, he reflected that slavery had corroded the ability of enslavers to see themselves or each other as human. He claimed there was no sense of civic life in the South and, because of this, no technological innovation and no way for even the white man to be upwardly mobile. He said clearly that we know the effects on enslaved people, but we should also consider the effects on white people—because we are one people. He sees civic life as an important piece of that puzzle, and so he spearheads American landscape architecture.
—Moderated by Emily Watlington
This article appears under the title “Living as Art” in the September/October 2021 issue, pp. 38–47.