St. Mary’s College of Maryland wants to bring on an artist to create a structure that reflects the slaves who originally lived and worked in Southern Maryland.
This project was in response to a 2017 archaeological survey that revealed evidence of two slave quarters that once existed on the campus grounds in the 18th and 19th centuries, where construction for the Jamie L. Roberts Stadium was about to begin. Records show that when the college was St. Mary’s Female Seminary, established in 1840, the school owned six slaves in 1850.
The college decided to slightly move the site of the new stadium so construction didn’t disrupt the grounds of the historic land.
To commemorate this history, President Tuajuanda Jordan said the college wants to build a structure on the grounds of the slave quarters, that recognizes the enslaved people “to ensure that we never forget to remember our past in all of its beauty and brutality.” The project will be funded by the state for $500,000.
After almost 60 submissions, a selection committee narrowed it down to 28 applicants, selected eight artists for interviews and three people moved forward. They expect to pick a winner by next month.
The first art piece, presented Feb. 12, was done by Shane Allbritton and Norman Lee, from RE:site studio in Houston. They partnered with Quenton Baker, a poet from Seattle, to create “From Absence to Presence.”
Baker helped implement “erasure poetry” in the art piece, Lee said. He used a document that was written by a slave owner, offering a reward for their runaway slaves — the slaves who lived at the slave quarters on the college grounds — and blacked out chunks of texts so the revealing words created a new narrative in the point of view of the slaves.
The redacted text is etched in the stainless steel structure that’s shaped like an 18-foot house, and looks like a giant mirror.
“So what you see here is a piece that is obviously built on land, but in fact implicates or embraces the entire field in its reflections,” Lee said.
At night, the light reflects the words from the house onto the field around it. He said the canvas of light represents the North Star — toward which slaves were told to run when they escaped the plantation.
The second group, who presented on Wednesday, Feb. 13, named their work “Aluta Continua,” which means “Our Struggle Continues” in Portuguese. The artists behind the piece are Donna Dobberfuhl, Oscar Saenz and Ricky Reyes.
“It is not only the slave struggle but our struggle as well,” Reyes said. “May this sculpture be a beginning for restoration and inspiration for this school, this county, this state and the nation.”
The 10-foot centerpiece is a stainless steel monument with a crystal on top. It represents the slaves and the struggles they faced.
Around the monument are 7-foot bronze figures, which represent the souls of the past who are spreading the word that the struggle continues. Surrounding the statues are trees, which represent “a place of contemplation and reverence.”
The third artist, Steve Prince, presented “Freedom House” on Feb. 14. He is the director of engagement and artist at Muscarell Museum of Art at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va.
“I dedicate this piece to the invisible that were made visible in this freedom house,” Prince said.
The 18-foot tall structure is made up of bronze, naked bodies who resemble black people holding each other up while also holding the structure up, symbolizing the way black people were the foundation of the community.
“If I were to remove this one person, this whole part of the structure would collapse,” he said.
The roof is made up of aluminum faces, which he plans to make from the faces of people at the college, at William & Mary, the community and the descendants of the slaves who once lived on the college grounds.
Inside the structure are tall figures of people dressed in different cultural clothing, who represent the indigenous people who originally inhabited the world. In the middle of the room is a bench where, Prince said, viewers can sit and reflect on the history of African-Americans and Native Americans.
Grace Alukpe, a senior at the college, said she liked how Prince included indigenous people in his presentation. “Multiple people here had land taken away from them,” she said.
She said she only attended Prince’s presentation and the “Aluta Continua” from the previous day.
Alukpe said she didn’t think the “Aluta Continua” model well represented the college and its findings, but it could work as a memorial in another place like Washington, D.C. She said the race of the artists “definitely” plays a part in this project. Prince was the only black person among the finalists present.
Marisa Guy, a freshman, said Prince was an energetic speaker but didn’t like the way the naked bronze figures looked.
“The only thing I kind of don’t like is that the people were stuck in unmovable pain,” she said.
Simone Llamas, who’s also a freshman, said she liked Prince’s piece, but thinks some people will be too “immature” about the naked bodies. Prince said the bronze figures’ nudity is suggestive but wouldn’t be displaying private parts.
Janell Sargent, assistant vice president for information technology, attended all three presentations. She said she enjoyed the first and third presentations. “You can tell they actually came to campus and understood the impact slavery had on people,” she said.
Sargent said she loved how the light comes out of the first structure and reflects the text onto the ground around it.
Race was also important to Sargent, and she said she could tell Prince connected more with the struggle black people had to face.
“As a person of color myself, it made me feel empowered to have our ancestry,” she said. “And it felt like he was able to catch that and tell our story.”
For more information and to give feedback on the contest, visit www.smcm.edu/commemorative.