Prospect Park

‘Bold and self-assured’: Shirley Chisholm’s planned Prospect Park statue is uniquely Brooklyn

A talk with one of the artists behind the monument

April 24, 2019 Scott Enman
A look at the Shirley Chisholm monument. Rendering courtesy of She Built NYC

New York City announced the winning design on Tuesday for its new statue in Prospect Park honoring former Brooklyn U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm.

The monument, commissioned by She Built NYC, a public arts initiative formed in June to honor trailblazing women, is 40 feet tall and features Chisholm’s silhouette intertwined with the outline of the U.S. Capitol building. It is named “Our Destiny, Our Democracy.”

The imposing sculpture is the brainchild of artists and architects Amanda Williams and Olalekan Jeyifous, a Crown Heights resident.

Although Williams is from Chicago, she calls Brooklyn her “second home,” and said that in addition to Chisholm’s legacy, the borough itself played a key role in the inspiration behind the project.

“There’s something that is so exciting and fresh about Brooklyn and its personality,” Williams told the Brooklyn Eagle. “I knew that when I started going there in the early ’90s. Now, having gotten to know Shirley Chisholm through her autobiography and the documentaries about her bid for the presidential election, I can see how she’s just so Brooklyn.

“She embodies so many of the things that I love about Brooklyn. It’s okay with itself. It loves itself. It’s not trying to be Manhattan. It’s potentially eclipsed Manhattan in its popularity at this point in time in the way we’ve seen it develop and evolve over the past 20-plus years.”

Amanda Williams. Photo by Tony Smith
Amanda Williams. Photo by Tony Smith

Chisholm grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant and became the first African-American woman elected to office in Albany. She was also the first African-American woman elected to Congress, and in 1972, she became the first woman to run for president in the Democratic Party — and the first black woman to run in either party. Her trademark slogan was, “Unbought and unbossed.”

“You don’t want something that can be just plopped anywhere,” Williams said of the statue. “It’s just so bold and so self-assured, and that feels like two things that describe everything that I know about Brooklyn.”

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Viewers can enter the monument and rest on rows reminiscent of the amphitheater-like congressional seating. The seats will be engraved with the names of other trailblazing women, while some will also be blank — leaving room for women of the future to also leave their mark.

Shirley Chisolm Monument. Rendering courtesy of She Built NYC
Shirley Chisolm Monument. Rendering courtesy of She Built NYC

Williams said she hopes the statue will encourage viewers to reconsider space and change the stereotype about a monument as not just artwork to admire from a distance, but something that encourages interaction, involvement and inclusiveness.

“From many vantage points, you will see her image, her iconic afro, her glasses and the colorful patterns of the clothing that she wore,” Williams said. “But at the same time there are other symbols that relate to the way in which she really pushed to open up the democratic process by using the Capitol dome itself as a symbol of that and creating a door or an opening within that.

“You approach her and you see her, but by the time you’re up to the sculpture it’s something that you can occupy, and that really seemed like a powerful analogy for how democracy should be working.”

Olalekan Jeyifous. Photo courtesy of the artist
Olalekan Jeyifous. Photo courtesy of the artist

Set on correcting a clear gender imbalance in the city’s public spaces, Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen and First Lady Chirlane McCray teamed up with She Built NYC to erect monuments of women who not only helped define New York City, but also incited changes outside the five boroughs.

The Chisholm monument will join a group of 150 memorials of historical figures across the five boroughs — only five of which depict women.

Four other trailblazing women will also be receiving statutes in the other boroughs. The monuments will depict women in the medical field, talented performers and musicians, avid activists, dedicated politicians, loyal civic servants — and devoted parents.

They include Billie Holiday in Queens, Elizabeth Jennings Graham in Manhattan, Dr. Helen Rodriguez Trías in the Bronx and Katherine Walker in Staten Island.

Amanda Williams and Olalekan Jeyifous. Photo by Faye Penn
Olalekan Jeyifous and Amanda Williams. Photo by Faye Penn

Williams, who is part of the multidisciplinary team at the Obama Presidential Center, and Jeyifous, who has designed large-scale installations at Barclays Center,  will now refine the design with input from the Parks Department, Prospect Park Alliance and local community boards. Up to $1 million will be available for the commissioning of the statute, and it’s expected to be erected by the end of next year.

“It makes me so proud to know that my participation with the She Built NYC initiative is going to be in Brooklyn,” Williams said. “That seems hugely important that not only is it honoring this amazing woman, but it’s honoring that spirit of how Brooklyn always does things differently, always sets trends.

“That’s how I first knew it, and that’s how it feels like it’s continued to aspire to be known. I feel excited that I’m contributing something that hopefully is uniquely Brooklyn.”

Follow reporter Scott Enman on Twitter.

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