America’s fraught past with mass incarceration and slavery are now on display following the unveiling artist Fred Wilson‘s 10-ft sculpture on Tuesday in Downtown Brooklyn’s Columbus Park.

The sculpture, Mind Forged Manacles/Manacle Forged Minds, is Wilson’s first-ever large-scale public art installation, funded by the nonprofit More Art and the Downtown Brooklyn + Dumbo Art Fund, and highlighting some of the country’s greatest societal barriers.

The installation is the first new public art displayed in Columbus Park in 15 years.

Ornate ironwork serves as a fence around statues of African sculptures, evoking references to captivity, confinement and restraint. It prompts the viewer to consider the self-created barriers that prevent societal growth.

The gates emphasize both security and attractiveness: “I’m really interested in the notion of beauty …. And what is behind that and what might that be hiding, said Wilson, a Bronx native whose art is known to challenge colonial assumptions on history, culture, and race – encouraging viewers to consider the social and historical narratives that represent the western canon.

The exhibit was positioned between a sculpture of Henry Ward Beecher, a prominent 19th century abolitionist, and a statue of Christopher Columbus.

In addition to hosting a presentation with Wilson for the More Art’s fellows, More Art partnered with the Center for Court Innovation, a nonprofit seeking to create a humane justice system, to host a series of creative writing workshops for youth (ages 18-24) to probe issues raised by Wilson’s installation. Both the fellows and the workshop participants were invited to the event.

“People were so curious about what was going on there, trying to see if they could enter,” said Yeseul Song, a More Art fellow and professor of Interactive Telecommunications at NYU. “We never know how people will react. Maybe people will climb onto the sculpture.”

A jazz performance was followed by speeches from Micaela Martegani, founder and director of More Art; Regina Myer, president of Downtown Brooklyn Partnership; Susan Donoghue, commissioner of NYC Department of Parks and Recreation, and lastly, Wilson himself.

Wilson’s installation also serves as a metaphor for gated communities, the detainment of illegal immigrants, “several layers of meaning,” around the concept of barriers, justice and freedom, Martegani said. “[Wilson] does it in the most insidious way of all. Not by punching us in the face, but by making us think about who we are.”

Mind Forged Manacles/Manacle Forged Minds will remain in Columbus Park for a year, until June 2023. Additional public programs, such as dance, music, and spoken word poetry, will be scheduled throughout the year at the scuplture’s site.

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