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Amanda Williams

During her long political career, Shirley Chisholm became famous for firsts: In 1968, as the first black woman to serve in Congress, she represented a district that encompassed Bedford-Stuyvesant, the neighborhood where she grew up. Four years later, she ran for president, becoming the first black woman to seek that nomination from either major political party (and the first woman to pursue it among the Democrats). Ms. Chisholm retired from Congress in 1983 and died in 2005. But next year she will once again pave the way, becoming the first female historical figure to have a public monument dedicated to her in Brooklyn — a 40-foot-tall likeness in steel that will rise at the southeast corner of Prospect Park. 

Its creators are the artists Amanda Williams and Olalekan Jeyifous, who won the inaugural commission for She Built NYC, an initiative introduced by first lady Chirlane McCray, Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen and the Department of Cultural Affairs last summer to correct the gender imbalance in the city’s public art and monuments, nearly all of which are devoted to men.

“Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm’s dynamic leadership and activism continues to inspire all who learn her story, and her service deserves public recognition,” Ms. McCray said in a statement. “This artwork will be bright, bold, and makes a statement — just like Chisholm herself.”

The pair’s design, called “Our Destiny, Our Democracy,” selected from five finalists, fuses the Congresswoman’s signature portrait with the silhouette of the United States Capitol and patterns of vines and leaves, a reference to the vegetation of the park. Theseimages create a multipronged form that would rise to the height of nearby trees, over an amphitheater-style space, whose seats would be inscribed with the names of women who have followed in Ms. Chisholm’s footsteps.

“This becomes something that’s occupiable,” explained Ms. Williams, who is 44 and based in Chicago. “It allows you to be enveloped in a conversation about interacting and bringing others along. This approach to a monument is that it’s an invitation to participate.”

Kristina Newman-Scott, the president of the local arts organization BRIC and a member of the voting panel for the Chisholm competition, called it “almost like a visual hug.”

“I really feel like her arms are present, and her energy is present, and she is giving love to this community,” she continued.

[Shirley Chisholm is one of many exceptional women to represent New York in Washington.]

Ms. Williams and Mr. Jeyifous — yes, a man is codesigning the first She Built NYC project — have known each other since their undergraduate days at Cornell University. They collaborated years ago and have recently begun doing so again, winning a commission for the National Public Housing Museum in Chicago. Both have made art about and in public space, although their styles are different. Mr. Jeyifous’s work, such as “Protest!” (2017), four steel silhouette sculptures of people demonstrating, tends to be bold and bright. Ms. Williams’s is more conceptual and somewhat quieter; for “Color(ed) Theory” (2014—17), she painted foreclosed houses in Chicago in hues that were drawn from commercial products marketed to African Americans.

Notably, both studied architecture, not art — a foundation that Mr. Jeyifous, who is 41 and lives in Brooklyn, said gave them a “strong background in being very intentional about how one takes any idea and distills it down to a set of simple things that can be translated into a physical experience.”

Their training also helped in another, perhaps more unexpected way — namely, by loosening the grip of traditional sculptural conventions or preconceptions of what a monument should be. Mr. Jeyifous said he saw this as an opportunity to “challenge the lone-wolf male figure who sits atop a horse with a sword pointing toward freedom.”

Kendal Henry, the director of New York City’s Percent for Art Program, which is commissioning the work, said he was “very excited about having contemporary artists re-evaluate what it is to create a monument.” He added, “And this is just the beginning.”

Last month, the city announced the next four statues in the She Built NYC initiative, with one for each of the other boroughs, costing between $350,000 and $1 million apiece. The Chisholm monument, which is part of a larger capital project being undertaken by the Prospect Park Alliance, is slated for completion by the end of 2020.

In September 2017, Mayor Bill de Blasio convened a commission to review New York’s public art and historical monuments, especially those that have been sources of controversy. Following its recommendations, the city relocated a statue of J. Marion Sims, who developed a surgical gynecological procedure in part by experimenting on enslaved black women who were not given anesthesia, and then held an open call for a new work to fill the void on the perimeter of Central Park.

Ms. Williams said she has thought a lot about not just the particulars of Ms. Chisholm’s story, but about the significance of making a work dedicated to her right now, when Donald J. Trump’s presidency has intensified debates over both statues that mark public space and the democratic process. “What does it mean to offer public art in this moment?” she mused. 

Receiving the commission has given Ms. Williams “the power of knowing that you’re contributing something,” she said. She described it as “a creative outlet to feel like you’re helping people think through” their reactions to the political situation, adding that “it opens and gives permission for any artist to say, ‘How can I contribute?’”

She noted that the work is designed so that viewers would see different images from different approaches, with Ms. Chisholm and the Capitol so inseparable that neither is ever wholly visible.

“That’s kind of how we feel right now in society, like we can’t quite see democracy,” she said. “So it’s the belief that it’s still there. As opposed to always having to be able to see it.”


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