Kerry James Marshall’s A Monumental Journey was unveiled on July 12 at Hansen Triangle Park in Des Moines, Iowa. Commissioned by the Greater Des Moines Public Art Foundation, this epic monument—the first public sculpture by Marshall of this scope—honors the legacy of twelve African American lawyers who founded the National Bar Association in Des Moines in 1925 after they were denied membership to the American Bar Association. The work’s unveiling comes at a moment of public reckoning concerning the racism and erasures of American history in certain Civil War and early twentieth-century public monuments, and follows the opening this spring of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, which is dedicated to the more than 4,000 African Americans who were lynched in the United States.
A Monumental Journey’s thirty-foot-tall and nearly twenty-five-ton steel structure is sheathed in a black brick called manganese ironspot, and takes its shape from the West African talking drum of the Yoruba culture, an instrument named for its ability to echo human intonation. "On the one hand, I had been trying to find a way to use African sculptural forms as a starting point for an underlying aesthetic principle to evoke Africanness without resorting to bright colors and patterns," Marshall told ARTnews last year, on the occasion of the monument’s groundbreaking ceremony. "On the other hand, it allowed me to talk about the ways in which information and ideas relating to things like equality and justice could be communicated over time and distances." The sculpture’s site in a public plaza also includes a speaker’s platform, in the hopes of creating a future space for political activism and community. "It will be the only place where we invite you to come and yell and scream, and that’s what gives our project a tremendous amount of uniqueness," one of the project’s organizers, Iowa District Associate Judge Odell McGhee, explained. At the work’s base, the twelve founding members of the National Bar Association are listed: George Cornelius Adams, Jesse Nathaniel Baker, S. J. Brown, Charles H. Calloway, Gertrude E. Durden Rush, Wendell E. Green, William H. Hayes, Charles P. Howard, Sr., Amasa Knox, James B. Morris, Cornelius Francis Stradford, and George H. Woodson. The National Bar Association is the country’s oldest and largest national association of predominately African American lawyers and judges.
Considering the legacy of public monuments in the United States, Marshall has suggested augmenting them with the presence of key African American figures rather than tearing them down. "There’s no way of erasing that history," Marshall was quoted in the Chicago Tribune. "They are objects of independence . . . but they are also monuments to slave owners." A Monumental Journey creates a new legacy of visible commemoration that serves the future as much as it is a revision of the past. "The monumental journey is to become truly modern," Marshall said of the work’s title in his interview with ARTnews. "It is to escape the dependency on a culture that has dominated you and oppressed you and to arrive at a true independence where you can do what you want, and act in your self-interest without having to ask permission."
The public dedication and celebration of A Monumental Journey took place at 11 AM. NBA president Juan Thomas and the politician, attorney, civil rights activist, and former NBA president, Arthenia Joyner, spoke during the ceremony. Marshall also gave a talk about his work hosted by the Greater Des Moines Public Art Foundation at Drake University at 6 PM on July 12.
A major survey of Marshall’s work is currently on view at the Rennie Museum in Vancouver. Kerry James Marshall: Works on Paper is on view at The Cleveland Museum of Art as part of the inaugural FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial of Contemporary Art through October 21.
Image: Kerry James Marshall, A Monumental Journey, 2018, (work in progress, June 2018), Manganese Ironspot brick, steel, granite; Commissioned by Greater Des Moines Public Art Foundation; Greater Des Moines Public Art Foundation Collection, 2018.1.