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Artist Statement – Masud Olufani

What is Evidence

Not the fleeting bruises she’d cover
with make-up, a dark patch like the imprint
of a scope she’d pressed her eye too close to,
looking for a way out, nor the quiver
in the voice she’d steady, leaning
into a pot of bones on the stove. Not
the teeth she wore in place of her own, or
the official document—its seal
and smeared signature—fading already,
the edges wearing. Not the tiny marker
with its dates, her name, abstract as history.
Only the landscape of her body—splintered
clavicle, pierced temporal—her thin bones
settling a bit each day, the way all things do.

Natasha Trethewey

_____

Natasha Trethewey’s astonishing poem What is Evidence, renders the bruised, and broken body of her dead mother through allegory and metaphor. The victim of domestic abuse—which inevitably led to her death—the corporeal form of the poet’s dead mother becomes a landscape of the trauma visited upon it.  The writer traces the ‘evidence’ of historical violence in this cracked and battered frame. In this sense the body becomes the site of memory and meaning; of the before and the present moment—the conflation of then and now. 

I thought about Ms. Trethewey’s poem as I considered how to respond to the challenge of conceiving a temporary site specific sculpture which would integrate the truncated trees that once stood on the grounds of Howard Middle School.  I thought of the inextricable link between the body and the landscape it occupies—how time, events, and the generations that live through them bind the living to the dead.  

Amongst certain west African communities the griot, or keeper of memory, plays a central role as the stewards of the collective memory of the people.  They sort; codify, and transmit the historical archive. In some sense the felled trees of Howard Middle School—some of which have stood since the time of the Civil War–represent the griots of the community who bore witness to, and kept the “divergent inheritances of the past,” as Kimberly Juanita Brown writes in The Repeating Body. The removal of these silent archivists constitutes a loss for the community, but also the promise of rebirth, as seeds harvested from their decaying bodies can be planted, and the discarded form of the tree can be reimagined as art.  The renovation of the school also points to the intersection of past and future—rebirth, and renewal.  

 

photo credit: bahaiteachings.org

My vision for this work includes one of the larger trees with intact limbs.  I would like to lay it prostrate on the lawn, diagonally, with the branches pointing towards the school. The limbs would be carved into a series of hands based on those of the elders at the retirement community across the street. I would then rub powdered charcoal, and graphite into the surface to give it a dark, luminous affect.  The hands will be reaching towards the Howard school as though lamenting their removal, but also gesturing in the direction of revitalization. The conflation of loss and hope marks the intersectionality of the conflicting emotions that accompany the modernization of historic spaces. The tree carcass becomes an archetype of discarded memory, while the carved hands, emerging from the body of what is now considered obsolete, embody the boundless, transcendent nature of hope.                                          

Your support for ELDER helps grow public art in Freedom Park.  You can make a donation by clicking here.

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Welcome to ELDER

THE PROJECT
ELDER has two main phases: an open-air studio on the school site at the corner of Randolph Street and John Wesley Dobbs Avenue from January – February 2020 where lead artist Masud Olufani will work; and the installation of the finished sculpture in Freedom Park, across from the David T. Howard Middle School, from April – October 2020 in commemoration of the reopening of the school in the Old 4th Ward neighborhood.ELDER honors the senior members of the park’s surrounding community—both the people and the trees—for their stability, witnessing, and role in providing a foundation for future generations.

Seeds for ELDER were planted during the planned renovation of the David T. Howard High School site and its anticipated reopening as David T. Howard Middle School in August 2020 as a feeder school for Henry W. Grady High School. Original plans for the redevelopment of the site included the loss of 60 mature and historic trees on the property, including some more than a century old.

THE TREES
To address the loss of these trees, concerned neighborhood citizens initiated an appeal process—facilitated by Trees Atlanta—in which Atlanta Public Schools and project firms Stevens & Wilkinson and Lord Aeck & Sargent devised a revamped plan that ultimately resulted in the additional benefit of preserving several trees and increased capacity for public engagement via public art.

THE ARTIST
Masud Olufani is the lead artist for ELDER and will be transforming one of the removed trees, a 100-year American Elm, into a sculpture that incorporates the histories of David T. Howard High School, the senior members of the community, and the historical importance of  trees to the Freedom Park community into a combined artistic narrative. Olufani, a graduate of Morehouse College with a Masters in Fine Art from Savannah College of Art and Design, is an Atlanta based mixed media artist whose studio practice is rooted in the discipline of sculpture.  Click here to read the artist statement.

THE SCHOOL
Originally opened in 1923 as an elementary school and converted to  a high school in 1948, David T. Howard High School is named for David Tobias Howard, a former slave who owned Atlanta’s largest black-owned undertaking business and donated the original 7.5 acres for the school’s campus.

THE LEGACY
The school is important in Atlanta history as a reflection of the Old 4th Ward neighborhood, with graduates including Martin Luther King, Jr, Walt Clyde Frazier,  Maynard Jackson, Lonnie King and many notable others. Since the closure of David T. Howard High School in 1976, the alumni have acted with pride and passion to preserve the legacy of this school and its place in the community. And now, as a new chapter of the site unfolds, these elders are committed to maintaining a presence in the school’s community of students and families going forward.

Along with engaging the Howard school alumni, ELDER will involve the seniors at the Helene S. Mills Senior Center, which will also serve as a convening location for collecting oral histories that will help inform Olufani’s work on the project.

THE SUPPORTERS

Your support for ELDER helps grow public art in Freedom Park. You can make a donation by clicking here.

 

 

 

 

Share ELDER at #ELDERFPC