Enslaved Africans' sculptures brings slave history to life in Yonkers

theGRIO REPORT - The completed Enslaved Africans' Rain Garden will feature a group of life-sized statues depicting slaves, nestled in a park in Yonkers, NY...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

“The history of slavery in America is epic,” African-American artist Vinnie Bagwell said about her project, The Enslaved Africans’ Rain Garden, a public art project planned for Yonkers, New York. The completed instillation will feature a group of life-sized statues depicting slaves, nestled in a stretch of green paths in the middle of the city.

“People think the South was evil for using slaves, but the truth is, the north was just as involved,” she told theGrio about the proposed garden. “What now makes up the tri-state area, this [area’s] economy, was tied to slavery. We are trying to show that.”

Models of five statues that illustrate this history have already been sculpted by Bagwell, but the project remains in a state of nascent development. Bagwell’s vision for the rain garden will require between $1.5 and $2 million to finish. When completed, the park promises to provide visitors with a beautiful place to remember an often-overlooked aspect of our history.

Bagwell’s statutes have been actualized with a haunting humanity to counteract the typically monolithic representations slaves’ lives. “These are people that had families, and homes, and hopes and dreams for their lives — and they were robbed completely of that,” Bagwell said. “When you think about what black people have brought to American culture, it’s an astounding story, and it’s something that needs to be commemorated.”

The Enslaved Africans’ Rain Garden will be the first major monument celebrating slaves’ resilience and creativity using detailed, figurative forms rather than abstract statuary.

Her second public work for Yonkers, the garden is planned for a site near Philipse Manor Hall, which was once the estate of the north’s largest slave traders and holders in the late 1600s, the Philipse family. Over the centuries, the city of Yonkers grew up around their ancestral home, which sits in the downtown area. Three years ago, Yonkers city council leaders realized that the remains of slaves were likely buried near the mansion’s walls, a common practice of that era.

Chuck Lesnik, current president of the Yonkers City Council, first worked with Bagwell during the early ‘90s on her first public piece, a statue of Ella Fitzgerald. He credits then-city council majority leader Patricia McDow with advocating for a memorial to the Philipse family’s slaves.

“I think at some point, we both became aware of the fact that Yonkers was active in the slave trade, and that well over 20,000 slaves had been bought and sold at the Philipse Manor Hall prior to the revolution,” Lesnik said of working with the African-American councilwoman to uncover these facts. As the sculptor for the Fitzgerald enterprise — with added expertise in the history of Yonkers — Bagwell was selected as the perfect steward for the memorial’s development.

She determined that $100,000 would be needed to produce the necessary maquettes, or small models of the sculptures, that would be used to cast the life-sized versions. The city agreed to split the bill if Bagwell could raise $50,000 on her own. She did.

After executing the models, Bagwell organized exhibitions aimed at raising the completion funds.

Recently, the Yonkers city council passed a resolution confirming the site for the effigies. Yet, looming questions surround securing the completion money.

“It’s really all about economics and funding,” Bagwell said as she discussed the challenge of raising over a million dollars. “The arts have been under fire for quite some time. Whenever we have a challenge to the economy, the arts are the first thing to get cut[.]”

Lesnik confirms that there are obstacles, but sees public art as central to bringing to all the benefits of culture in a manner that enhances a city’s fiscal activity.

”[E]ach one of these sculptures is going to cost a couple hundred thousand dollars to construct and place,” Lesnik said. “In an era of tight fiscal constraints, where we have to talk about closing firehouses… there is a lot of opposition over spending public dollars [on art].”
Yet, “there’s no question that the arts attract people to certain areas,” he continued. “You may come up… to see the [Enslaved Africans’ Garden] and decide to have lunch in Yonkers and do some shopping. Anything we can do to bring people into our downtown is good for business, taxes and revenue for the city and municipality.”

Despite the remaining challenges, Bagwell is confident that her brain child will someday bring black history to life and promote the value of public art. She is equally glad to use her artistic gifts to benefit society.

“When I began sculpting in 1993, [my ability] was a surprise,” she said of her talent. “I thought I was going to be trying pottery, and someone brought me some sculpting tools, and I picked it up almost immediately. I started sculpting as if I’d been sculpting all along.

“When you receive gifts like that — a big ‘ta-da!’ — I felt responsible,” Bagwell continued. “This is not random. ‘What am I supposed to do with it,’ I thought? I immediately gravitated toward art for public places.”

Lesnik is also impressed that, despite starting late in life, Bagwell was able to sculpt the models with so many life-like details. “Vinnie’s really an amazing person, because some sculptors have had [lengthy] training — she hasn’t,” he said.

The impact of the maquettes has made a bold impression on the viewing public wherever they have been exhibited. ”[The work] has been thoroughly embraced by the city, by the county, and by the state,” Bagwell said. “People of all colors and backgrounds find the artwork wonderful. The enthusiasm and positivity are really remarkable.”

People often tell the artist, “It appears that I have captured the souls of the people.”

Interestingly, memories of the painful legacy of slavery dredged up by these forms has not tarnished the reception of the Enslaved Africans’ project for African-Americans. To the contrary, Bagwell said blacks are usually joyous to learn more about our shrouded past.

“A lot of African-American history has not been fully documented, so there’s a lot of stuff that we just don’t know,” Bagwell noted. “When you learn about it, it just gives us a better sense of place — where we fit into the tapestry of American history. It affirms us. It’s a pleasure and an honor to facilitate that.”

The Enslaved Africans’ Rain Garden will be funded through a combination government, public, and private sources.

“It will take a collaboration of many facets of contribution to be able to achieve this,” Bagwell said. She has been concentrating on grant applications this year, “but the year is still young.”

Funds collected for the project will be administered by ArtsWestchester, whose CEO, Janet T. Langsam, called Bagwell “a very talented artist.” The leader of this organization dedicated to keeping the arts diverse and accessible in Westchester also told theGrio that,”this particular project is an exciting one.

“We really support and love the idea of bringing art to public places, so that everyone can enjoy it,” Langsam said as a long-term champion of the project.

Tax-deductible donations from the public will be of critical importance to the completion of The Enslaved Africans’ Rain Garden, and can be made securely at the web site for the project: EnslavedAfricansRainGarden.org.

Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb