ARTIST AT WORK Puryear. [Photo by Mike Cohea]
It was a sunny and steamy afternoon on September 27 on Brown University’s front green, when around 3:30 pm, inside a white tent overflowing with guests, Martin Puryear stepped to the podium.
Behind the 73-year-old, Yale-trained, MoMA-exhibited, National Medal of Arts-receiving, MacArthur Foundation “genius grant”-winning sculptor’s right shoulder was Brown’s signature building: University Hall, which, in March, served as the inspiration for a 600-pound replica cake commissioned to kick off the University’s 250th anniversary celebration. The building, constructed in 1770, also played a key role in 2006’s Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, the 85-page product of then-president Ruth Simmons’ institutional soul-searching mission. “[T]he construction of the building was financed through a public subscription campaign,” reads page 12 of the report. “A few donors honored pledges by providing the labor of their slaves for a set number of days.”
Behind Puryear’s other shoulder was Brown’s newest work of public art: a partially-submerged, eight-feet-diameter ball of iron, from which three giant chain links — the last one snapped in half, its broken edges gleaming with a mirror-like coating — reach skyward. Nearby, a waist-high circular slab of granite bore an engraving that began, “This memorial recognizes Brown University’s connection to the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the work of Africans and African-Americans, enslaved and free, who helped build our university, Rhode Island, and the nation.” A few sentences down, it read, “Brown University was a beneficiary of this trade.”
What follows are Puryear’s remarks from that Saturday afternoon dedication ceremony, a somber interlude during Brown’s 250-themed “Fall Celebration” weekend packed with tours, performances, forums, and a football game against Harvard followed by a fireworks show. Puryear’s words have been edited slightly, for length.
“I was honored to be chosen to collaborate in bringing this memorial into being. Initially, I was honored, and after I took on the project I realized what a weight it is to try to memorialize something as shameful as the practice of buying and selling human beings, which went on for so long in this country. It became a real chore and it felt as though something that didn’t really allow much for my own usual involvement [and] engagement with my sense of freedom as an artist to tap into my fantasies, my musings as an artist. It was a very, very overwhelming sense of responsibility to historical truth. And how do you use your art to somehow do justice to that historical truth?
“Brown wanted a sculpture, and I’m a sculptor, so I was able to provide a sculpture. But that was, as I said, complicated and difficult. But I still believe that the most important takeaway from this entire enterprise is the truth, historic truth.
“After all, who knew that Rhode Island was the center of the business of the slave trade? I had no idea. And as this plaque will attest, over 1000 slaving voyages originated from Rhode Island to West Africa.