By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA
bartesaghi@montclairlocal.news

Where Christopher Columbus once stood, Harriet Tubman soon will. And Montclair architect and artist Nina Cooke John will bring her there.

Cooke John’s memorial to Tubman, titled “Shadow of a Face,” had been among four finalist entries in a national competition to find a Tubman monument for Newark’s Washington Square Park after the city removed its statue of Columbus there last year. The selection was announced in June. 

Entrants were asked to design a work recognizing the Underground Railroad, and its historical significance to Newark.

“Ms. John’s design ‘Shadow of a Face’ envisions the renamed park as a place of pilgrimage where people will visit from all corners of Newark and beyond to learn about Tubman’s life and journey,” Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said in an announcement earlier this summer.

At first, Cooke John said, she didn’t want to submit a design, because she saw monuments as figurative sculptures — ones that represent their subjects realistically, and that’s not the style of her work. But she decided to give it a shot with the encouragement of an artist friend who encouraged her to think more broadly about what a monument could be.

“Really, though, my interests would be about how the monument could be an engaging public space. Not only a place that would be educational, but a place that the people of Newark could really identify with and feel connected with and feel like it’s their community space,” Cooke John said. 

The monument, as described by the Newark announcement, is circular and “will guide visitors throughout a multisensory experience” as they travel through the paths it provides. A silhouette figure of Tubman is at its center.

“Featuring a larger-than-life profile of Harriet Tubman, the work [also] lets visitors connect with her at eye level on a foundational wall where her face will be reflected in a mosaic made of large ceramic pieces,” the city announcement says. “The texture of the mosaic is repeated at different scale on the ground and inner walls. Text throughout the area highlights important dates in Tubman’s life and the names of [Underground Railroad] safe houses throughout New Jersey.”

In a video describing the project, Cooke John said the circle would be broken only by the footprint of the old Columbus statue. The footprint itself will hold a map of Tubman’s route through New Jersey.

“It is important to recognize this place in history, as a part of our collective history,” Cooke John said in the video.

Salamishah Tillet, a Rutgers University-Newark professor and New York Times critic who served on the selection committee, said in the city announcement the design “blends the abstract with realism and reimagines what a monument can be and who it represents.”

Cooke John, who also designed the “Point of Action” installation seen at Montclair’s Crane Park earlier this year, said there will be a significant amount of community input into her project.

Through workshops, community members will share their personal stories of struggle and liberation. 

“We’re going to give them opportunities to work with clay and actually make mosaics,” Cooke John said. “Those will become part of the monument as well and bedded in the groundwork and on some of the inner walls. So, it will be a monument to people’s current lives, too.” 

Tubman was born into slavery sometime around 1820, though her exact birth date is unknown. As a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, she helped many enslaved Black people find their freedom. 

“Tubman also served as a scout, spy, guerrilla soldier and nurse for the Union Army during the Civil War,” the National Women’s History Museum notes. “She is considered the first African American woman to serve in the military.”

Baraka, in the Newark announcement, said it was “only fitting” to select the work celebrating Tubman’s life in June — as Juneteenth celebrates the end of slavery in the United States. 

Cooke John envisions the monument to be a place where community members can come together and feel connected.

It’ll be a place where poetry readings can happen, where children can sit around and sketch Tubman's face and where dance performances can happen, she said.

“Very often when we do monuments, we’re putting someone up on a pedestal and we’re looking at them from afar, but it was important to me for people to not only have a reverence for the amazing things that she did and really the superhuman things that she did, but also connect with her on a more one-to-one as an everyday person, so that they can see themselves in her in a way," Cooke John said. “Once you feel more connected, you’ll do more in your community and you’ll participate in civic engagement in your community.”