Unsettling the Histories of Public Sculpture

Written by
Marica Antonucci

Installed in a grassy enclave near Pier 3 of the Brooklyn Bridge Waterfront Park (New York), Ruins of Empire by Kiyan Williams presents viewers with an oversized female figure constructed out of bits of hardened earth. The sculpture was created for Black Atlantic, an exhibition organized by the Public Art Fund (open May 17- November 27, 2022). With its title the show looks to the work of Paul Gilroy, who developed the transnational notion of the Black Atlantic in 1993 in order to theorize cultural identities whose history has been profoundly marked by the transatlantic slave trade.1 While the exhibition as a whole comprises various site-responsive works that address aspects of Black experience in the United States, Williams’ piece offers a complex meditation on the history of monuments and public sculpture from a Black diasporic perspective.

Williams’ figure, who seems to have grown out of the park’s own soil, nonetheless has a historic lineage. Her appearance is drawn from that of the so-called Statue of Freedom, the 19th century neoclassical bronze statue created by Thomas Crawford that sits atop the dome of the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. Though the statue’s high placement prevents a detailed viewing, it is equipped with several patriotic additions like a laurel victory wreath, a shield featuring 13 stripes, and an inscribed pedestal that reads E pluribus unum (“Out of many, one”). In Ruins of Empire the figure is displaced from her aloof architectural perch and is brought quite literally down to earth to reckon with the nation’s complex historical record.

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