In response to history and the present, Abigail DeVille’s Light of Freedom reflects the despair and the exultation of a turbulent period of pandemic and protest. The project is a newly commissioned outdoor sculpture. Madison Square Park Conservancy, as the organization that stewards this historic park, has worked to address the question of how public art can respond in civic space to this critical time. DeVille’s answer, Light of Freedom, the program’s fortieth public art project, will be on view through May 2024.
Light of Freedom carries many cogent symbols. DeVille has filled a torch — referring to the Statue of Liberty’s hand holding a torch which was on view in Madison Square Park from 1876 to 1882 — with a timeworn bell, a herald of freedom, and with the arms of mannequins, beseeching viewers. The scaffold, which prevents access physically and metaphorically, recalls a work site, an insistent image on the urban landscape. But the scaffold is golden, summoning the glory of labor and the luminosity in the struggle that can lead to change. Formative to Light of Freedom are the words of the abolitionist, author and statesman Frederick Douglass, who proclaimed in an 1857 speech delivered in Canandaigua, New York: “If there is no struggle there is no progress.” The torch refers to the light of democracy and its foundation in ancient systems of government by citizens.
DeVille has described working on this piece: “In my research, I have found that the first Blacks to be brought to New York City were eleven Angolans in 1626. That makes people of African descent the second-oldest group of settlers in New Amsterdam, after the Dutch. Unfortunately, history has erased the contributions and victories of this group. I want to make something that could honor their lives and question what it means to be a New Yorker, past, present, and future.”
The artist, who maintains a studio in the Bronx, uses public space to explore overlooked narratives; she mines untold histories for her subject matter. In this project, DeVille conjoins significant crossroads in African-American history in New York to create a sculpture that is inspiring and introspective. She recognizes and hallows the earliest enslaved Africans who were brought to New Amsterdam, critiques the unfulfilled promise of American liberty and justice for all, and summons the current Black Lives Matter movement as a source for the work.