Site: Lower Manhattan, New York
Artists: Jeanine Centuori, Karen Bermann
Client: The African Burial Ground Memorial Committee, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts
This project was designed as a response to the African Burial Ground Memorial Competition Call for Ideas. Sponsored in the Fall of 1993 to commemorate the unmarked and forgotten burial ground of eighteenth century Africans and African Americans in New York City. In 1991 this site reemerged in the course of excavation for the construction of a federal office tower. It is in lower Manhattan, just north of City Hall, and covers approximately five acres. The exact boundaries of the African Burial Ground are not known.
The issue of authorship is raised by the dead themselves: by their nameless, unrecorded condition in life and in death. Even the boundaries of the site are unknown. How does one acknowledge this much silence? In the midst of so many issues of names and namelessness, of invisibility and erasure, was it appropriate for an individual to leave a single name on the site? This question was especially important for us as white people. It was clear from the beginning that we could not author the project or sign the site in the traditional ways in which we have been trained. We had questions about appropriate ways of participating, about empathy and respect for distance. The project is, in part, a provisional contribution to this conversation.
We chose, therefore, to make an incomplete work — to seek the participation of others (designers and non-designers, children and adults, individuals and groups) so that the project would develop over time through a complex process of collaboration between strangers. The contribution of each collaborator is a new sidewalk panel that replaces the existing concrete surface.
The existing metal curb trim is inscribed with the names of project participants.
All manhole covers on the site are replaced. This familiar bit of urban hardware that is the point of access between the street and the infrastructure underground is also a point at which the site’s history is both covered and allowed to surface.
The slavers’ logs are full of references to how Africans were “stripped naked.” This phrase, stripped naked, appears over and over in the logs, so much that is can be read metaphorically as a political intention.
The burial customs of a number of West African cultures involve the practice of offering “grave tribute” — adorning and delimiting the surface of the grave with meaningful objects. The offering maintains a connection and a separation between worlds, between living and dean, above and below. It speaks through the ground.
These two obliquely connected forces — stripped nakedness and the grave tribute — colluded in our decision to ornament and dress, dress up the ground.
Like a quilt, this changing ground surface is a participatory and collective artifact that acquires meaning through accretion and can develop incrementally over time. It is also performative in nature: panels may be prefabricated and installed or poured and constructed in site.