This past weekend, during the closing ceremonies of Prospect.5 — the fifth edition of New Orleans’s citywide contemporary art triennial — a new bronze sculpture forged by Simone Leigh was unveiled at the base of a pedestal that once held a monument to Confederate general Robert E. Lee.
The sculpture, titled “Sentinel (Mami Wata)”, depicts the torso and legs of a woman’s body, enwrapped by a serpentine coil and topped by a voluminous spoon. Unveiled as a part of “Monuments: A Proposal,” a series of commissions and public projects made by Prospect.5 with the support of a grant from the Mellon Foundation, the bronze is one of five new works that suggest new approaches to public statuary.
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For years, car passengers and pedestrians making their way around the traffic circle at the intersection of St. Charles and Howard Avenues who have cared to train their gazes skyward have seen atop a marble plinth an unremarkable nothingness. The tall pillar used to support the likeness of Lee, which was removed on May 19, 2017, the last of four Confederate monuments to be taken down in New Orleans. Leigh’s installation, which stands proudly at the base, redirects the gaze downwards, inviting a less deferential and more egalitarian relationship between viewer and sculpture.
“Rather than perched atop the imposing multistory column that served as the pedestal for the Lee monument, this new work of art sits at ground level, not looming over people but emerging from among us,” says a press release for the project.
Mami Wata is a water spirit revered across the African diaspora and known by a number of different names, such as Yemaya, Yemoja, and Lemanja. Through calling upon Mami Wata, Leigh alludes to the diversity of African folk traditions and spiritual practices while drawing on the universality of the deity across them all. The spoon-shaped head recurs in Leigh’s sculptural work and is perhaps a reference to the symbol’s importance in Zulu culture, which is richly entangled with New Orleans’s history: the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club is one of the oldest and most respected Black Carnival organizations in the city.
In her title, Leigh invokes her powers of guardianship and protection over the city — one that faces the twinned threats of rising sea levels and environmental racism that may together pose disproportionate challenges to Black women, a group Leigh’s works often speak to.
Instead of honoring a figure who has come to represent white supremacy, Leigh’s sculpture is a nod to the ground-level, grassroots activism that rejects the continuing ubiquity of symbolic violence in the South — a remedy to the representation of white supremacy that once stood at Egalité Circle (previously Lee Circle).
The work will remain on the site for a brief period “before making space for other histories and narratives,” according to a statement.