A design by Jamaican-born architect Nina Cooke John has been chosen by Ras J. Baraka, the Mayor of Newark, New Jersey, to replace a statue of Christopher Columbus that had been placed in the city’s Washington Park until its removal in 2020. Cooke John has designed a Harriet Tubman monument, which will be installed in the park, which will also be renamed Tubman Square in honor of the pioneer abolitionist, in 2022.
In announcing the design selection, Mayor Baraka said it was fitting that Harriet Tubman’s work leading enslaved people to freedom via the Underground Railroad be memorialized almost a year after the start of the United States’ racial reckoning and in time for the first celebration of the new Juneteenth federal holiday. He added that John’s public artwork will symbolize hope and optimism for future generations in Newark and the nation.
Cooke John’s design is entitled “Shadow of a Face” and is meant to re-create the renamed park as a pilgrimage destination where people from all over can come to learn about Tubman’s life and legacy. John said that her design “creates a welcoming space for people to connect with Tubman as well as interact and reflect on their own liberation from whatever weight they might be carrying. This is a monument for the community and by the community.”
The monument will provide visitors with a multisensory experience that includes a larger-than-life profile of Tubman, which allows viewers to connect with the image of the abolitionist at eye level. Her face will be reflected in a mosaic comprising large ceramic pieces. The monument will also feature text highlighting important dates in Tubman’s life, as well as the names of Underground Railroad safe houses located throughout New Jersey. The Newark-based artist Adebunmi Gbadebo will work with Cooke John as an apprentice, helping her with research and community engagement throughout the project.
Cooke John is the founder of Studio Cooke John Architecture and Design, a multidisciplinary design studio that prioritizes the value of place-making in transforming relationships between people and the built environment. She is a member of the Black Artists + Designers Guild Collective and was named to Elle Decor’s A-List Top 100 Designers.
Cooke John says that Jamaica and Jamaicans have a definite influence on how she views architecture. “Jamaicans are incredibly innovative,” she said, noting that the innovation results from “takin what you have and not just making it serve your needs, but doing so creatively,” as evidenced in Jamaica’s zinc houses, juice carts, and clothing.
The design for the new monument was selected through an open-call process implemented by Newark’s Director of Arts and Cultural Affairs Fayemi Shakur in 2020. Then five artists who were commissioned to produce conceptual designs inspired by Tubman and the Underground Railroad in Newark. Community members were invited to make comments and provide feedback on the finalists’ designs. These were then reviewed by a 14-member jury of historians, art experts, and community stakeholders, which ultimately selected Cooke John for the project. The process was developed and facilitated with support from Bloomberg Associates’ Cultural Assets Management team.
Photo Studio Cook