The city of Newark, N.J., revealed its long-awaited Harriet Tubman monument on March 9 during a celebratory event that brought out elected officials and local artists.
Michele Jones Galvin, the great-great grandniece of Harriet Tubman, and the city’s own celebrity, Queen Latifah, who performed the monument’s on-site audio experience, were in attendance to deliver remarks for the occasion. The unveiling took place downtown, in Harriet Tubman Square––the park that was renamed to honor Tubman.
The monument to the freedom fighting abolitionist replaces a statue of Christopher Columbus that was removed from the park in June 2020.
Tubman is today the Underground Railroad’s most well-known conductor. Nicknamed the “Moses of her people,” she made 13 trips to the South to lead African Americans out of bondage, even though her former enslaver had placed a bounty on her head. Tubman reportedly used Newark as one of her central stops on the Underground Railroad as she helped lead formerly enslaved Blacks from Maryland to Pennsylvania.
Nina Cooke John, a professor of architecture and design strategy at Parsons the New School for Design and Columbia University, was commissioned to create the Harriet Tubman monument, which is officially titled “Shadow of a Face.” She said she has primarily worked in architecture for the last 20 years and recently expanded into public art. She is also the owner of Studio Cooke John.
The architect/artist spoke with the AmNews about the importance of working on a monument to honor the Underground Railroad’s most celebrated conductor.
AmNews: Why it was important for you to be selected to create this monument?
Nina Cooke John: You know, it was really important for me as, well, as a woman, as a Black woman, as a mother of daughters. And as someone who lives 20 minutes away from where the monument is going to be––I have raised my family 20 minutes away. I think those were the primary reasons why this is really important to me.
It’s important because it represents the legacy of a woman who historically [is not well-known], even though we know some [things] about her. Being able to fill out her profile in terms of the complexity of her character and putting that on view in a public space for other young women to be able to come and engage with and learn from and be inspired by—that was really important for me as a mother of daughters.
There are very few statues of women, and most of the monuments that exist are commemorating some act of war or another…If what we’re doing is allowing for the inclusion of people in our written history in a way that it’s way more inclusive, it’s really important to address that in a public space, too. I think after COVID, we realize how important public space is to all. Not only just to be able to get out of our houses, connect with other people in our community, either directly or indirectly, but in how the physical aspects of our public space really do impact how we see ourselves and how we represent ourselves.
AN: What are the dimensions of the piece?
NCJ: The central figure of Harriet Tubman is about 25 feet tall. That is the larger-than-life kind of anchoring aspect, which can be seen from across the park. The monument sits in a park that still has [statues of] other men—other white men—in it, so she really needed to kind of claim space and be seen. The width of it I think is about 40 feet. It’s something that pulls you in—you walk in and through and around, and not just kind of walk around it, as you might have with traditional statues.
AN: If there are children walking by it, or adults, who do not know who Harriet Tubman is, God forbid, how does this work introduce them to who she is and what she was about?
NCJ: There is text engraved on the outer surface of what we’re calling the learning wall. So that’s one of the interlocking curved elements. And it has the dates—important dates from the timeline of her life. There’s also corresponding audio that comes in intermittently that essentially narrates similar information that’s in the text. And then also, in the inner portion of this learning wall, we expand the information beyond just Harriet Tubman to the Underground Railroad in Newark, because we really believe that she was supported by the Underground Railroad. If not for the Underground Railroad, she wouldn’t have been able to make it in and out of Maryland so often and keep everyone safe, essentially. And so, there are panels engraved in steel that have detailed information about the different players; the Black Liberation struggles in Newark and how they contributed to this effort. That information is also narrated and included in the audio experience of the monument.
And then we kind of connect Harriet’s story—the Newark Liberation participant story—to current-day Newark stories in their audio that we collected during workshops, as well as a mosaic of tiles that they made at these workshops with the prompt, “Tell us your story of personal liberation, whether big or small.”
AN: How does the audio keep going? How is it operated?
NCJ: We hired an audio specialist who’s also a sound designer, who created an algorithm. There’s also a light rail station right next to the monument that has loudspeakers, so he actually incorporated [the light rail’s schedule] to make sure our audio isn’t competing with that audio. And then there’s bits and pieces––I think 20 second pieces––a mixture of the community voices, the Tubman narration, and the Newark Liberation narrations that gets mixed in according to this algorithm. At certain times of day, you’ll hear longer snippets and more of it, and certain times of the week. It’s this complexly designed algorithm and so each time you come, you might hear something different. We don’t want to disturb our neighbors in the apartment buildings across the street, so it won’t be coming on in the middle of the night—things like that were considered.
AN: Did you work with a big team on this project?
NCJ: I had a big team, yes, in terms of fabrication and getting this built––a very big team from the makers to our collaborators at the Newark Museum of Art, which helped with all the workshops. Our collaborators at the public library, which helped with the audio because we were able to put an audio booth in the library that people could come in and listen. Our collaborators at Audible, who helped with the technical details of the sound editing and oversaw all the narration and composed the score. And the city of Newark and Newark Arts––so yes, there was a big team. But in my office, it’s really just me and one other person.
At first, it was an open call and I sent in my portfolio and a letter of interest. And then once you were shortlisted, [there was] about six weeks to research and come up with a design. It was mostly me sketching through ideas, using the two primary things that I knew had to be in it regardless of what it looked like.
One is how do I express the duality of Harriet Tubman: larger than life, standing tall, but also connecting to her, but on a human scale, right? Because I think it’s through that connection on the human scale that you really are inspired to act because you feel like, “OK, maybe I can do that.” That duality needed to be in the design, and I wasn’t sure how it was going to play out.
And then also this needed to be a public space. People needed to feel they were welcome to come into it and feel ownership over this monument as their monument, and it needed to be able to activate the park that it was in. Before, people were just kind of walking through the park and I wanted it to be a place where they can kind of sit and stay and engage; engage with the monument and engage with each other. So a lot of sketching, a lot of kind of 3D modeling with my assistant at the time, and developing it.
And I have close colleagues who I’m lucky enough to be able to discuss my ideas with and get feedback, so definitely a collaborative effort all along the way.