Kids are running all over a temporary playground in the middle of the National Mall. It's part of Beyond Granite: Pulling Together, the Mall's first-ever official outdoor show. The idea is to commemorate American stories missing from the Mall and question how history has been enshrined in stone.
These new monuments look very different from the familiar imposing white monoliths or bronze presidents in thoughtful repose. Six acclaimed artists representing a cross-section of Americans – Black, Latino, Asian and Native – from all over the country were chosen by the Philadelphia-based group Monument Lab to participate.
Artist Derrick Adams, who grew up in Baltimore, designed a working playground divided by a billboard-sized archival photograph from 1954. It shows a previously all-white park a few days after it was desegregated by court order. Joyful Black and white children are seen sliding, swinging and climbing together. Visitors are invited to use the space as it was intended.
"What does it mean to have a monument on the Mall that you can play on?" asks Salamishah Tillet. "For children to feel like it's their space, their Mall, a site of joy and happiness, is a pretty radical intervention."
Tillett co-curated this exhibition; she's also a professor at Rutgers University, where she directs the New Arts Justice initiative. This monument, she says, commemorates the fight for American children to have equal access to the right to play.
"I appreciate the fact that it's acknowledging both the difficulties of the past, the celebration of civil rights and ushering us into another present as well," she says.
Beyond Granite: Pulling Together was inspired by Marian Anderson's legendary public performance in 1939 after white supremacists banned her from singing at Constitution Hall. The Black opera star's rendition of "My Country 'Tis of Thee" on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial became a cultural touchstone.
Sculptor Paul Ramírez Jonas' bronze bell tower plays "My Country 'Tis of Thee." But the bells stop tolling right before the end. Visitors must pull a lever to play the final note.
"The piece is simply saying, America is not America without you as an active citizen," Ramírez Jonas says. "It needs you in some way."
National identity is partly defined by what we publicly mourn, observes Monument Lab Director Paul Farber. "I think about how in this country, we're bursting at the seams with grief, with loss," he says. "We don't always have a place to put it."
Putting memorials on the National Mall makes them matter, he says. Think of the AIDS quilt. Or a memorial in the show called Homegoing.
Ashon T. Crawley's maze of bright blue platforms lies in the shadow of the Washington Monument. It mourns queer musicians who directed Black church choirs, sang in their services, and died, closeted, of AIDS-related complications. Crawley, who grew up Pentecostal, honors the loss of these elders with original music playing softly from speakers. "We are your family," a choir sings. "We love and we care and sing for you."
Some visitors to the Mall may not think of these deaths as a defining national tragedy that pulls us together as Americans. This monument asks: Why not? Crowley, a professor of religion, illuminates how Black gospel music and the blues can be traced to the Muslim prayers of ancestors taken from Africa. "If you did not have that sonic practice of prayer, you wouldn't have the blues," he says. "And you wouldn't have gospel music."
From above, the monument spells out the Arabic word "amin," which means 'let this prayer be accepted,'" Crawley says. When visitors enter the maze, they join the word and the prayer by following the path.
Finding meaning, belonging and a balance between trauma and triumph is the heart of this project, says Monument Lab's Paul Farber. Artists, as artists do, are finding solutions amidst all the recent handwringing about the relevance of monuments. "We're actually looking for history to come to life," Farber says.
"You know, I think a lot of monuments commemorate dead people," notes artist Tiffany Chung. Her monument, For The Living, lies near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. "I think it's difficult to live, and when you think about war and conflict, the consequences also fall on the shoulders of the living."
Chung was a refugee when she came from Vietnam with her family to the U.S. as a child. Her monument is a map, low on the ground, made out of thick black landscaping rubber. It shows the flight paths of migrants from Southeast Asia around the world.
"For me, instead of erecting something to really hit the sky, I want to spread it out on the earth," she continues. "Because this is us. This is where we will go back to after we leave the world. And this is beautiful. The grass will grow. The sun will wash the things away, maybe including the material that created this map. But that's the brevity of life!"
The monuments of Beyond Granite: Pulling Together aspire to heal legacies of harm. But they are not permanent. Due to various regulations, they can only be displayed until the middle of September.
AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:
The National Mall's white granite monuments have been joined by new ones for the next few weeks that look and sound a little different.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RASCOE: Six acclaimed artists were given a task - to make monuments commemorating American stories missing from the Mall. NPR's Neda Ulaby paid a visit.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: A metal xylophone sits in a colorful playground in the middle of the Mall. It marks the moment when an actual playground in Washington, D.C., was desegregated in 1954. A billboard-sized photograph shows joyful kids, Black and white, sliding, swinging and climbing together. You can play on this monument, too.
SALAMISHAH TILLET: What does it mean to have a work of art, a monument on the Mall, that you can play on?
ULABY: That's Salamishah Tillet. She co-curated this show, called "Beyond Granite: Pulling Together." It's the first-ever official outdoor show on the National Mall. Unlike the Jefferson or Lincoln Memorial, she says, this monument pops with color.
TILLET: And really not just any color. It's really quite rainbow-filled.
ULABY: The idea of the show is to honor American stories that for most of our history were pushed aside. So instead of a statue of a guy on a horse, this monument on the Mall, says Tillet, centers American kids at a critical moment in the fight for democracy.
TILLET: And fight for children, all children to have equal access and the right to play.
ULABY: "Beyond Granite: Pulling Together" was conceived by a group in Philadelphia called Monument Lab. Director Paul Farber says it's not about pulling down old monuments...
PAUL FARBER: But to make room for many stories that have not been told here but are felt here.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY COUNTRY 'TIS OF THEE")
MARIAN ANDERSON: (Singing) My country 'tis of thee.
ULABY: When Marian Anderson sang at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939, it was because white supremacists had banned her from performing at Constitution Hall. Singing on the Mall reclaimed this most American of spaces. Anderson inspired this show and artist Paul Ramirez Jonas. He built a bronze bell tower to honor her.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ULABY: It plays "My Country 'Tis Of Thee," but it stops right before the very last note.
PAUL RAMIREZ JONAS: So the song is not complete until someone comes in and plays that last note.
ULABY: Someone literally has to step forward and pull a lever.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL CHIMING)
FARBER: The piece is simply saying, America is not America without you as an active citizen. It needs you in some way.
ULABY: Not all of these monuments are interactive. They were designed by a cross-section of artists - Black, Latino, Asian and Native - from all over the country. The show's gotten enthusiastic reviews for how it redresses the ways American identity is defined by what we publicly mourn.
FARBER: I think about how, in this country, we're bursting at the seams with grief, with loss. We don't always have a place to put it.
ULABY: Putting it on the National Mall, Farber says, makes it matter symbolically like no place else. Think of the AIDS quilt or this new memorial designed by artist Ashon Thomas Crawley. We're standing in the shadow of the Washington Monument by a maze of bright blue platforms.
ASHON THOMAS CRAWLEY: But it's not a labyrinth in a Christian way. It's a labyrinth honoring a different kind of tradition.
ULABY: Crawley grew up in the Pentecostal church. His monument mourns the queer musicians who directed its choirs and sang at its services and who died, closeted, of AIDS-related complications. Playing on speakers is music Crawley wrote.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTISTS: (Singing) We are your family, and we love, and we gather and sing for you...
ULABY: These deaths might not be something that some visitors to the Mall think of as their American story, but this monument makes you think, why not? Crawley also wants to reveal how Black gospel music and the blues can be traced to the Muslim prayers of long-ago people taken from Africa.
CRAWLEY: If you did not have that sonic practice of prayer, you wouldn't have the blues, and you wouldn't have gospel music.
ULABY: The maze, if seen from above, spells out a word in Arabic.
CRAWLEY: And it spells the word (speaking Arabic), which means let this prayer be accepted.
ULABY: When you enter this maze, you are entering the word and the prayer.
FARBER: Where are people finding their way? Where are we finding belonging?
ULABY: Monument Lab director Paul Farber says amidst all the hand-wringing about monuments, these artists are finding solutions, not by limiting or repressing history.
FARBER: We're actually looking for history to come to life.
TIFFANY CHUNG: You know, I think a lot of monuments commemorate the dead people.
ULABY: That's artist Tiffany Chung. Her monument lies near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
CHUNG: I think it's difficult to live. And, you know, when you talk about war and conflict, the consequences also fall on the shoulders of the living.
ULABY: Chung was a refugee when she came to the U.S. from Vietnam. Her monument is a map, low on the ground, made out of thick, black landscaping rubber. It shows flight paths of migrants from Southeast Asia around the world.
CHUNG: For me, it's like, well, instead of erecting something really to hit the sky, I want to spread it out onto the earth because this is us. This is where we will go back to after we leave this world. And this is beautiful. The grass will grow. The sun will wash the things away, maybe including the materials that created this map. But that's the brevity of life. To commemorate the living is really important - what we are able to do while we're here on the earth.
ULABY: Making room on this piece of symbolic earth can maybe help deal with legacies of harm. But the monuments of the show "Beyond Granite: Pulling Together" are not permanent. They will only be displayed until the middle of September.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News, Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF RHYE SONG, "THE FALL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.