The Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy’s announcement that there will be an open Call for Artists for Philadelphia’s permanent Harriet Tubman statue struck the wrong chord. Public Art Director Marguerite Anglin said:
Yes, the open Call for Artists for this public art project will welcome proposals for a permanent statue that celebrates Harriet Tubman’s story or another African American’s contribution to our nation’s history. This will be a true open Call for Artists, where the City will be looking for a wide variety of original and unique ideas from many artists.
First, Harriet is sui generis. She cannot be replaced by a random African American historical figure. Second, the Managing Director’s public art policy directive establishes criteria for artwork placed on public property. The artwork must commemorate individuals who “made significant contributions to Philadelphia, have had significant impact on Philadelphia and beyond, and represent broadly shared community values.” In my op-ed published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, I wrote:
Representation matters, but when it comes to artwork on city property, who is represented matters. Anglin said that the city “will be looking for a wide variety of original and unique ideas from many artists.” But the city’s public art policy does not allow for that.
The short list of African American historical figures who meet the city’s public art policy includes Malcolm X. Like Harriet, Malcolm was prepared to use a firearm and any means necessary in his pursuit of freedom and racial justice.
Malcolm X, aka El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, was a world-renowned human rights activist, racial justice advocate and cultural icon whose charismatic leadership laid the foundation for the growth of Sunni Islam among African Americans. Today, an estimated 200,000 Muslims live in Philadelphia, the majority of whom are Black.
Malcolm has been memorialized in books, movies, music, visual art, and a U.S. Postal Service Black Heritage Stamp.
In addition to Malcolm X Park and murals, Malcolm’s time in Philadelphia is commemorated with a state historical marker that notes his leadership of Nation of Islam Temple No. 12 in the 1950s. Will the City’s Request for Proposals include Malcolm X, “Our Black Shining Prince?” If not, why not?