Controversy Erupts Over Harlem Statue

“Victory” by Vinnie Bagwell

By Rayna Tamko

The space in Central Park where a statue of physician J. Marion Sims once stood has been empty since April 2018. Also known as the “father of gynecology,” Sim’s statue was removed because he conducted brutal and invasive research on enslaved black women without their consent or anesthesia.

In December 2018, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) posted a call for artists to submit work that could potentially replace the Sims statue. The city’s Percent for Art program narrowed down the pool to four finalists in February 2019: Vinnie Bagwell, Simone Leigh, Wangechi Mutu, and Kehinde Wiley.

Vinnie Bagwell is a Yonkers-based sculptor with over 20 years of experience in creating public art. Bagwell proposed to replace the Sims statue with an 18’3” high sculpture of an angel made from bronze, and rainbow granite. The angel holds an eternal flame in one hand and an Asclepius staff in the other.

Simone Leigh is a sculptor from Chicago, now based in New York City, whose art is informed by her experiences as a black woman. Leigh’s proposal was an 18′ H x 16′ W x 7′ D bronze sculpture of a black woman at rest in an odalisque pose, a position often used in European art. This woman is meant to represent the known and unknown black women violated by the American medical system.

Leigh’s proposed sculpture imagined in Central Park.

Kehinde Wiley is a Nigerian American painter and sculptor, most known for his commissioned portrait of President Barack Obama for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. Wiley’s proposal to replace the Sims statue was to keep the pedestal that the Sims statue once stood and to place three black doctors dressed in armor and connected by their hair in his place.

Wiley’s proposal

Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu proposed a bronze sculpture with a human seated upon the body of a large slain animal as if in mourning.

On October 5, 2019, the East Harlem Preservation Society and DCA hosted a presentation of final proposals and an artist selection panel at The Museum of the City of New York. The community was able to review the artist’s submissions and give its input, but the final vote would be reserved for the panel of seven art professionals and activists.

The panel was scheduled from 11 am to 3 pm, but did not conclude until after 5 pm. The input from the community narrowed the choices to Simone Leigh and Vinnie Bagwell. Of the four artists presenting their work, Bagwell was the only artist that was present at the panel, which was a factor in her being the crowd favorite. After deliberation, the panel voted four to three in favor of Leigh and “Women at Rest.”

This led to an outcry of protests from the community members who felt that their input was ignored. A very animated, at times heated, discussion continued for more than 30 minutes, at the end of which the New York City Commissioner of Cultural Affairs addressed the crowd.

“The opinion of the panel is advisory to the city,” said Tom Finkelpearl. “The city can take that advice or not take that advice.”

In the days following the panel, Leigh withdrew her submission after hearing about the dissatisfaction of the community. “I greatly appreciate that my proposal was selected by the committee,” said Leigh. “However, I am aware that there is significant community sentiment for another proposal since this is a public monument in their neighborhood, I defer to them.”

As the runner up, Bagwell’s submission was ultimately chosen. The artist selection is simply the beginning of the process to replace the Sims statue. Bagwell will continue to work with city agencies and the community to ensure the sculpture accurately represents those that have fought for years to have the Sims monument taken down. The new sculpture is projected to be completed in 2021.

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