How does public art limit (or extend) what we can know about the past, present, or future? How can art support us in telling a new story, a shared story about who we are?
By Shan Overton
Late in the afternoon of October 3, 2022, news broke that an Allegheny County judge had opened the way for the removal of a plastic-wrapped Christopher Columbus statue after a protracted legal battle. The thirteen-foot-tall bronze statue has stood since 1958 atop a massive granite base on Pittsburgh city property in Schenley Park adjacent to the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. Donated to the city in 1955 by the Sons of Columbus of America, it was sculpted by Pittsburgh artist Frank Vittor, in part to honor the Italian-American community of which the sculptor was a member. The explorer remained at this great height for over sixty years, until the tumultuous summer of 2020, when in June of that year petitioners on change.org gathered over 14,000 signatures to take the statue down due to its namesake’s “crimes of abuse and murder of indigenous peoples.”
Later that summer the monument would be tagged with graffiti, while the City of Pittsburgh Art Commission held meetings to review the situation. The Commission voted unanimously for Columbus’ removal in September 2020, with former-Mayor Bill Peduto rejecting public requests by the Italian Sons and Daughters of America to enter mediation about the move. Since Columbus Day of that year, the statue has technically remained on its pedestal, though wrapped in thick, opaque plastic fixed with wide yellow tape to prevent further defacement while awaiting the results of the lawsuit. A legal action was brought by the ISDA in October 2020 to stop the city from carrying out its decision to remove a sculpture that the city owns. Attorneys for the plaintiffs said they will appeal the judge’s October 2022 decision.
Following these developments shortly after Columbus Day, I thought about the various stories the statue of the explorer tells us about ourselves, our identities, our history, and our civic relationships. I wondered whether there are other images the city might stand in Columbus’ stead on that giant granite pedestal. How does public art limit (or extend) what we can know about the past, present, or future? How can art support us in telling a new story, a shared story about who we are? Can Columbus be part of that story held in common? Should Columbus remain, or should we say goodbye?
Searching for an answer, I turned to a different collective art project I’d learned of that is currently being carried out in a Catholic parish in a neighborhood at that border of Pittsburgh and Wilkinsburg neighborhood less than three miles from the Columbus statue. This group is following an alternative approach in remediating a persistent impoverishment of images. They are grappling with the same questions about how the art that we see shapes our minds and our relations with each other, but they go about it in another way, one that attempts to build community conversation rather than legislate or adjudicate an outcome within a binary system.
The endeavor is called the Black Religious Images Project (known as BRIP), which has been undertaken by a small, diverse group of Catholics working together at the newly-formed St. Mary Magdalene Parish. The larger context of the project, like that which the city itself is undertaking, is one of rapid and difficult transformation. Currently, the Diocese of Pittsburgh is reorganizing its parishes, closing some entirely and folding others into groupings to permit multiple churches to be served by a shared staff, as is the case for the parish within which BRIP has emerged. As with other Christian denominations, the Catholic Church is experiencing a great deal of change, with decisions being driven by demographic shifts and decreases in church participation and steep economic demands in keeping up old buildings and providing enough staff. In the Diocese of Pittsburgh, this has meant a shrinkage in the number of independent parishes from 188 to 63 as of May 2022. The result, in this particular case involving BRIP, is that three parishes — Mother of Good Counsel in Homewood and St. James in Wilkinsburg, both of which are low-income neighborhoods, and St. Bede, in a more economically affluent neighborhood called Point Breeze — have come together as St. Mary Magdalene during a time when there is a contested political movement to annex the city of Wilkinsburg to Pittsburgh. The three former parishes now form one parish with three campuses overseen by a pastoral staff of priests and laypeople. They have done so bringing their own unique traditions, histories, and identities, and not of their own choosing. The development of BRIP is one response to the formation of one parish from three distinct communities, a way for Mother of Good Counsel, St. James, and St. Bede to learn about a particular religious and cultural heritage that could be easily subsumed as they join together into one entity.
These three distinct and racially/ethnically/economically diverse parishes were merged into a single parish in January 2020, which was just prior to the organization of the petition to remove the Columbus statue. Fairly soon thereafter, St. Mary Magdalene established a Cultural Action Team (CAT) to help figure out a way to unify the three communities. The Black Religious Images Project (BRIP) is one of CAT’s key efforts. In their mission statement, the CAT says that they “will explore the wonderful and diverse races and cultures in our Parish,” while they continue to “examine how we can improve interrelationships through understanding and acceptance of differences … [and] share our findings with the Parish on a regular basis through discussion and activities.” An example of this mission in action, the BRIP aims to make congregants aware of a diversity of cultural traditions within the Church while uplifting the contributions of people of color to church and society in the near-absence of this knowledge in many Catholic communities in the United States.
In practice, the process engaged by BRIP includes collecting and curating religious images featuring people of color to share with all three churches. The BRIP leadership team – which includes CAT co-chair Linda Atkins, Lisa M. Porter, and John Castañon – secured a small grant from Call to Action that enabled them to purchase and frame three signed prints by Laura James, a Bronx-based painter, illustrator, and curator focused on presenting images of people of color in work strongly influenced by distinctive Ethiopian Christian artistic traditions. They also invited parishioners from the three campuses to contribute images for display, hoping for greater congregant involvement in the project. Several people did donate images, including one person who painted an image of Martin Luther King, Jr., whom Pope Francis invoked in 2015 in an historic address to the United States Congress as an American martyr defending our national values. The King image was donated to St. Mary Magdalene parish in October 2021 and was rotated on display in the three churches that November for Black Catholic History Month, provoking questions and comments from parishioners. Some congregants objected to a non-Catholic being featured prominently, while others thought that saints and other traditional religious figures should be the focus of imagery for the parish. Still others expressed appreciation for the King image and wanted to know more about how the parish came to have it in the BRIP collection.
An image depicting St. Josephine Bakhita by graphic artist-turned-painter Jen Norton, displayed along with a biographical sketch of the saint by the BRIP team, provides a bold challenge to the city’s Columbus statue. The image depicts St. Josephine standing with her hands in prayer amidst a brightly-colored background alive with activity. Cloaked in her nun’s garments, St. Josephine has the remnant of a manacle clinging to her right ankle, though the chain of enslavement is broken. Two lilies, flowers that symbolize new life for Christians, appear growing in a garden by her left foot. Above her right shoulder, we see in an African dwelling and a garden with a fruit tree, a representation of her early life in Darfur, Sudan, where she was born in 1869. Behind that peaceful scene, the viewer’s eye moves to the upper left hand corner of the painting, in which a girl in a blue dress walks across the desert tied to a camel, an image depicting her capture by enslavers. Birds, possible symbols of hope that are symbolic of the Holy Spirit, fly in the darkening sky overhead and point toward a cross located in the top border of the painting. A glorious sun shines from the upper right hand side with the words “Pray & God will do the rest” in bold print beneath, a nod to St. Josephine’s commitment of devotion and service as a Canossian Sister.
The complex story behind this image fills in some wide historical gaps left by a statue like that of Christopher Columbus. St. Josephine, who had been seized while under the age of 10 by Arab slave traders, was given the Arabic name Bakhita, meaning “fortunate one.” Later, a Turkish general bought her and tattooed her with a knife, leaving numerous deep scars she would carry for life. Eventually, an Italian consul named Callisto Legnami bought and transported her to Venice, where she crossed paths with a religious order, the Canossian Sisters. St. Josephine so appreciated their deep dedication to prayer and service that she converted to Catholicism and joined the sisters as a nun.
BRIP team members told me that they searched for images like this one of St. Josephine partly because the pictures help to compensate for the lack of images of people of color in most of the church buildings where people worship. Team members mentioned that people of African descent typically do not see themselves in statues, paintings, and other images in most Pittsburgh Catholic churches, where artwork has primarily been funded by people of European descent. Even Jesus, who was a Palestinian Jew, is usually depicted as a sandy blonde Northern European In fact, a recent publication from the Diocese of Pittsburgh, entitled “The Church Welcoming!,” featured on its cover an image of what some Christians, Catholic and Protestant, call the “surfer Jesus.” The publication states a dedication to hospitality and inclusion of all persons, but it includes only one image of a person of color of fifteen total images of people within its covers. Depictions of persons such as an African saint provide a powerful counterpoint to this limited visual story of Christian history and community.
But BRIP’s work is not simply about welcoming people of different backgrounds or even about historical accuracy – though these are a concern. In addition to raising awareness and filling in the gaps in people’s understandings of their own communities, the BRIP team is keenly interested in helping knit together into one community three formerly independent parishes with racial and economic differences. BRIP team member Castañon noted that their “goal is to become one family – but this is a tall order.” It is not easy to create a unified community out of three previously separated church communities. It is not easy to weave a city or nation into a single tapestry out of the various threads of history, identity, and sense of community that people have brought with them, wherever they have come from and whatever their histories and cultures.
When people in the parish community question or complain about the images featured on Sundays, the BRIP team quietly, steadily stays the course. Co-chair Atkins said in my interview of the committee that the lived process of real cultural change is gradual – “a walk, not a race,” she noted. You cannot force people into real acceptance and change. This is especially true when the goal is bringing people together into a deeper, more thoughtful understanding of human experience and, in the case of religious folks, the truths of faith. The BRIP committee’s idea was not to tell people what to do or think, but to engage in what Castañon calls “careful work,” which means doing your research well, listening to what others are saying, and trying to find a way to meet in the middle. Are all the people of these three church campuses ready for a Middle Eastern Jesus or even a Black Christ? Perhaps not everyone is, but the BRIP team is committed to starting and nurturing an ongoing conversation. In this way, Atkins says, the various members of the three parish campuses “can walk this journey together” on a path toward becoming a single community.
The difference between the image of St. Josephine Bakhita standing on an easel in a Catholic parish and the statue of Christopher Columbus hidden behind tight wrappings while court battles rage about him is not just a matter of content or even placement. This is not simply a matter of whose story or whose image wins, and where. Rather, it is about forming a more complete narrative and a greater sense of the whole. Christopher Columbus, the Italian Catholic explorer sponsored by Spanish Catholic monarchs, was an early enslaver of indigenous persons of the Americas, not only forcing them into labor on this continent but transporting them to Europe and beyond as slaves for sale at market. Despite being beloved by many Americans, he was, in truth, a human trafficker, a practitioner of genocide. And St. Josephine Bakhita, an historical figure unknown to many people, was unwillingly enfolded in the system that Columbus had helped inaugurate when he sailed the ocean blue in 1492. Though trafficked in the system of slavery, she persevered to live in hope beyond the end of that particular version of human bondage and degradation. St. Josephine became free in mind, body, and spirit and shared that freedom with others through her devotion and service as a nun.
Yet, I would not argue to replace Christopher Columbus with a statue of St. Josephine Bakhita (or someone like her) on top of that granite pedestal in Schenley Park. This is not simply a case of substituting one image for another, or of having one story win over another. Instead, I wonder what might be possible if we follow BRIP’s lead and think of this moment of social and cultural change as one in which we increase the number of threads, interweaving the complex story so that more of our threads are visible in the tapestry. Perhaps we need both Columbus and the saint to make the picture complete?
To achieve this, it is instructive to look at the process that arises from the deeper goal that the parishioners have for their effort. They prioritize finding ways to link people together, instead of determining winners and losers. They want to expand the story, not narrow it or overwrite it with a new one, because they want to get a better vision of its fullness. When we pose either/or scenarios, whether in our churches, our city governments, our neighborhoods, our national conversations, we set up battles in which someone’s ideas and images have to dominate over someone else’s. This may be comforting for a time, if I feel that my history and my community have been ignored, misrepresented, or misunderstood. Or it might make me happy simply if I want to win because being a winner feels so much better. But there is no end to the topsy-turvy in our personal and political and spiritual and communal lives if we keep on like this. As the Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote in the concluding sentence of his short poem “The Great Day” about revolution, “The beggars have changed places, but the lash goes on.” In the system of winners and losers that we’ve inherited from Columbus, everyone eventually loses.
Take Columbus down off his high platform, but don’t discard him. Put him next to another statue (or two) to create a tableau that invites them to speak to each other and invites those of us in the public to ask questions to piece together a more complex story. Columbus’s narrative tells us a lot about who we are now, just as St. Josephine Bakhita’s life story helps to make the story more complete. We arrived at this moment of divisiveness as a legacy of binary colonialist thinking (and doing) of people like Columbus. We should not drop the colonial explorers and slave traders (or the statues of them) from the storyline, for the impulse to dominate and enslave others has not really left us. And the tendency to create an us-versus-them scenario has only increased in wider society in these last several years.
Instead, I think the BRIP team has a provocative idea about bringing more stories like that of St. Josephine Bakhita for others in their parish to consider, to intertwine with the stale old story of the blonde-haired Jesus who hailed from Northern Europe, who never existed, anyway. The people leading the City of Pittsburgh could take a lesson from this.
Image of “St. Josephine Bakhita,” by Jen Norton.
Shan Overton is an educator, writer, editor, and contemplative urban gardener. Her poetry and prose have appeared in The Porch Magazine, Carlow University’s Voices from the Attic, Religious Studies News, Reading Religion, and elsewhere. She lives in Pittsburgh.