Reimagining Lady Liberty’s Torch to Meet This Moment

When Abigail DeVille started web site analysis for her public artwork challenge in Manhattan’s Madison Square Park, she came upon a wild 1876 of the Statue of Liberty’s indifferent hand and flaming torch within the park. For six years, the surreal fragment was on view there to generate pleasure and lift funds for the pedestal to maintain the colossal statue coming to New York from France.

“History had already done it for me,” mentioned Ms. DeVille, who knew immediately that the enormous torch was the right type to include supplies and metaphors conjuring the battle for liberty in America, previous and current.

The set up titled “Light of Freedom,” the 39-year-old Bronx artist’s first solo exhibition in her hometown, opens on Oct. 27 within the park simply north of East 23rd Street. There a 13-foot-tall, rusted lattice construction evokes the silhouette of Lady Liberty’s torch. Inside the deal with is a weathered schoolhouse bell, a visible “call to action” in accordance to Ms. DeVille. Dozens of model arms, painted blue, are clustered contained in the armature of the flame form, suggesting each a wave and the most popular a part of hearth.

In her research for “Light of Freedom,” including Ric Burns’s 1999 series “New York: A Documentary Film” and a 1977 article in The New York Times, she learned that 11 Angolans were the first Blacks brought to New Amsterdam in 1626 by the Dutch West India Company. After successfully petitioning for their freedom in 1644, some were later granted land to farm just south of the future Madison Square Park, as a buffer between the Dutch settlements downtown and the Native peoples further north.

In the years after the British took over the city, “Black people’s lands were confiscated,” Ms. DeVille said, calling that dispossession the first wave of centuries of gentrification upending lives and pushing Black communities to the margins.

The artist elevates their continual pushback for justice, writ large by the Black Lives Matter movement, in the torch’s flame, crowded with the outstretched mannequin arms as an image of both oppression and exultation. “‘If there is no struggle, there is no progress’,” she said, quoting a Frederick Douglass speech that has informed how she approached the piece.

Ms. DeVille “collapses how we think about past, present and future time, especially for Black Americans’ narratives,” said Deana Haggag, the president and chief executive of United States Artists. In her former role as executive director at the Contemporary museum in Baltimore, Ms. Haggag commissioned the artist in 2016 to make an installation examining the city’s former Peale Museum, where she contextualized the history of Black protest in Baltimore a year after Freddie Gray’s death in police custody.

Ms. DeVille got her first big break in 2005 while a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology. She was one of eight unknown artists, selected by the dealer Jeffrey Deitch, to land a roll on the short-lived reality TV show “Artstar.” “It was really a casting call because it was your work and what you were wearing,” Ms. DeVille said.

When the show premiered, Mr. Deitch told The New York Times that Ms. DeVille’s work had matured the most over the course of filming. He sold one of her inventive large-scale collages to a Belgian collector for five figures. “That was a big encouragement to keep going on this path,” she said.

While at Yale University, where she received a master’s in fine arts in 2011, Ms. DeVille was influenced by her grandmother’s penchant for collecting houseplants, silverware, appliances, clothing and other random throwaways from her neighbors, calling her the “unofficial archivist” of her housing project in the Bronx. The objects were “the silent witnesses of all these people’s lives,” said Ms. DeVille, who surreptitiously carted some items back to school. “That shaped the way I thought about material.”

At Yale, she incorporated some of these castoffs into her first installation piece, “New York at Dawn,” her response to a Federico García Lorca poem referring to “a hurricane of black doves that paddle in putrescent waters.” That was also her first use of a mannequin as a generic stand-in for humanity.

“It can speak very quickly to larger societal concerns,” said Ms. DeVille, who sees herself working in the lineage of assemblage artists that include Noah Purifoy, Robert Rauschenberg and Louise Nevelson. At her studio, a mannequin wearing a space helmet and yards of glittery chain necklaces is a work in progress for the group show “Pedestrian Profanities,” curated by the artist Eric N. Mack and opening at Simon Lee in New York on Oct. 29.

For Madison Square Park, she has contained her torch within scaffolding, which she sees as a metaphor for the continual labor involved in the building of freedom and also as a ladder symbolizing how different groups have ascended, at times on the backs of others.

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