By Chetana Andary
Art in public places can convey powerful messages about the narratives of our places without uttering a word. Not only does it tell the story of a place, its history, the governance, the people, and their aspirations, but it impacts the way we read a place today – how to understand it, navigate it and ultimately, feel part of it. Increasingly, in our online world of pandemic separation, it is the images beamed across the globe that offer an insight into a place and its people without even visiting it – because what is selected is as interesting as what is left out!
The monumental sculpture Rumors of War by artist Kehinde Wiley (1) is an example of how art can reposition an exclusive custodial narrative with an equitable interpretation – one that celebrates and makes tangible the contribution and achievements of black lives. Images are powerful and cannot be unseen. This is art that is of relevance today, echoing the historic upheaval rippling through America now.
This powerful artwork rectifies the imbalance of the plethora of historical Confederate monuments to position a proud African American in urban streetwear astride the traditional form of the warhorse. Presented by Times Square Arts in partnership with the Virginia Museum of Fine Art and Sean Kelly, New York, it will be permanently installed on historic Arthur Ashe Boulevard in Richmond at the entrance to the VMFA.
This is art that has been intentionally and consciously curated – art to connect us to who we are now – and who we can be – art for us all. To curate is ‘to take care of’ and it is this responsibility to select the visual messages that convey an inclusive society that public art-curators are tasked – a call to action to care of our environment, disrupt the status quo and invite us to reimagine not only the future of our places, but the people we want to be.
As the world becomes increasingly urbanised with a predicted 70% of the world’s population living in cities by 2050, and global issues intersect with nationalistic policies, trade wars and mass migration, the role of art in publicly accessible places has been tasked with a new remit – to draw on the central role of creativity in shaping alternative urban communities. Why we want art to display creativity in our public places, and why we attribute meaning to it, is perhaps best explained by considering the theory of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs (2). Developed to demonstrate the hierarchical levels people require. “This five-stage model can be divided into deficiency needs and growth needs. The first four levels are often referred to as deficiency needs (D-needs), and the top level is known as growth or being needs (B-needs). Deficiency needs arise due to deprivation and are said to motivate people when they are unmet” (3). Maslow has placed self-actualisation at the top, the very pinnacle of our need “to become everything that one is capable of becoming”(4). This, states Maslow, is the critical desire to connect to an intangible symbolic dimension, to make meaning of our place in the world. Maslow, himself no stranger to discrimination as a Jewish immigrant in New York in the early 20th Century, offers creativity as an opportunity to redress the inequalities of governing structures and outmoded thinking, because the longer our needs are not met, the stronger the motivation for change becomes.
Public art, such as Rumors of War, taps into this contemporary articulation of public space as a democratic forum for presenting ideas, promoting a discursive environment, and welcoming diverse audiences. Conscious curating is offered as an act of integrity.
- Rumors of War by artist Kehinde Wiley
- Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, (1943) A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-396
- McLeod, S, (2020) https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.htmlHagerty, M.R (1999,250) “Testing Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: National Quality-of-Life Across Time,” Social Indicators Research 46(xx) (from Wikipedia 2020)
Rumors of War Feature & Body Image: Rumors of War, 2019. © Kehinde Wiley. Presented by Times Square Arts in partnership with the Virginia Museum of Fine Art and Sean Kelly, New York. Photographer: Ka-Man Tse.
Unity Body Images: Artwork credit: © Hank Willis Thomas, Unity, 2019, an original work commissioned by the City of New York Department of Cultural Affairs Percent for Art Program, the Department of Transportation and the Department of Design and Construction. Photo credit: NYC Department of Design and Construction / Matthew Lapiska.