brandnewdaydesigns: What is the significance of the Enslaved Africans’ Rain Garden specifically with Yonkers, New York?
Vinnie Bagwell: In Yonkers, we have Philipse Manor Hall, which is the oldest standing building in Westchester [New York] County. The Manor was built around 1685. Frederick Philipse and his descendants owned the better part of the county – say 58,000 acres of land from the Bronx to Croton-on-Hudson. That’s a lot of space. Many people are familiar with Philipse Manor Hall, but they don’t know that the Philipse family was the largest slave-trader and slave-holder in the country second to the folks in South, Carolina. Many people think New York was a safe haven where slaves from the south came to seek refuge. Most people don’t think of New York as being involved in the slave trade. New York provided a lot of the money and insurance for the ships that transported Africans to America. It’s amazing.
bndd: As a public arts space, why is the Enslaved Africans’ Rain Garden important?
VB: As a whole, Americans are not steeped in art like say the Europeans and so folks don’t get to see art on a regular basis. The beauty of art in public places is you get exposed to culture and different mediums, it’s stimulating, improves the quality of life, adds beauty, is educational, and can spark the imagination. I feel there isn’t enough acknowledgement on the impact that enslaved Africans made on building this country. They literally laid the foundation for the Europeans to come here and prosper. Here in New York, we have the African burial ground, but after that, there’s not a lot of acknowledgment in the country about enslaved Africans. As an artist and sculptor, I think public art is a perfect medium to provide accessible information and education about enslaved Africans.
VB: Slavery is painful. The sculptures are narrative and subject to interpretation. For example, I’Satta (Liberian name pronounced “I-Sat-tie”), my sculpture of the beautiful woman with a bucket on her head and carrying fish. There is relief sculpture on her back; an iconic ship that goes down her spine that demonstrates the way enslaved Africans were packed on top of each other like sardines in cans. I want people to look at that image and think about what that experience must have been like. Somebody takes your child, your brother, your uncle. Snatches them and puts them in chains and marches them to the river. Puts them on a ship and takes them across the ocean to another place and you never see them again. At the heart of it, it’s about emotion. It’s about feeling. It’s about being human beings. These people [enslaved Africans] were dehumanized; that’s how it was done. The people who enslaved them removed their humanity. Art is a healing process. I’m interested in plucking heartstrings and creating discussion that is resonant. When people come to the Rain Garden, I want them to leave, go home and talk about it for a couple of days to anyone who will listen.
bndd: Of the sculptures you’re working on, you say Themba represents more than the enslavement experience…
VB: Out of all the sculptures, Themba gets the most commentary. People respond to the expression on his face. He’s seen as very humble. I mean this is all about interpretation. Themba is Zulu for ‘faith, hope, trust’. People want to know why he’s dressed like that. We’re talking about the late 1600’s. Most people think of slavery in the 1800’s, maybe the 1700’s. In the beginning of slavery the intention was to have these people be indentured. They were only going to be kept for seven years or so, given some land and let go. The economy began to grow and slave owners realized they needed these people, but in the early days slaves were well-cared for, well-dressed and taught skills. Boatmen [Themba] for example were highly revered because they knew how to navigate from the United States to Africa and back again. Themba’s eyes are closed so he’s inside himself. He may be prayerful. He may be having a moment where he’s collecting himself. He may be remembering his wife and children. Themba is composed to make you wonder.
VB: When I first conceived the sculptures, I wanted them to be iconic. Everybody knows that African women are capable of carrying amazing things on their heads and Yonkers is a waterfront town. I’Satta is carrying a bucket of water. Do you know how heavy that is? Try putting a bucket of water on your head and walking a distance. And she’s carrying a bunch of fish to make her balanced. I made her purposely beautiful because beauty for enslaved African women was a curse. These sculptures are designed to be beautiful and have elegance. I’m big on line and shape and of course detail. The goal is to give them souls.
bndd: On your Facebook page you say your art is how you serve God and humanity…
VB: I think of artist as being God’s favorite kids. For many, intuition is considered the voice of God. Intuition is for the present and is instructional. Artists follow the instructions. We’re much more in-tune to that voice and it comes through our medium. You have a lot of untutored artist like me. They call us prodigies. There are people who come to this world that are gifted. When I was younger I could draw very well. I was having a hard time in 1993 finding examples of the kind of work I wanted to make and that created a sense of responsibility to me and I’m thinking God snapped his fingers and said “I have something else for you to do.” Sculpting was a surprise. I had been trying to break a painting block, started sculpting and was like “Look at this!” I blew my own mind. In those days I was absolutely effervescent and manic. I understand art is part of my purpose for being here. It’s not random. Like many people I want to make art about my culture, about my people. A lot of my work is about history, but I’m really just trying to humanize and illuminate people of color.
bndd: What do you envision? What will people see when they visit the completed Enslaved Africans’ Rain Garden?
VB: Rain gardens are designed a certain way. Basically, you’re talking about a planted depression with gravel and layers of drainage and the way you mix the plants with trees so they create there own eco-system to be self-sustaining by the rain. You don’t have to irrigate. You don’t have to water. I thought this would be a good idea so the city would not have to maintain it the way they might a different kind of garden. Visually it’s going to look more intriguing. [Rain gardens] can be quite beautiful. It will be a peaceful place. I’m trying to create certain energy. The beauty should draw you to it. Beauty is healing. The sculptures are for your eyes and you will be able to touch them. It’s a natural setting so we won’t be using any pre-fabricated benches. It’s like going through a maze. All the sculptures will be disbursed throughout the garden, so you have to traverse the entire space. I want you to be delighted, surprised and educated.
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