Rice’s newest statue founds a ‘Blank Slate’ for conversation
There’s a new statue on campus, and it’s intentionally provocative. This is the first time that “A Blank Slate: Hope for a New America,” an interactive sculpture on a national tour, is being exhibited on a university campus. The monument, created by Ghanaian artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo to disrupt Confederate and segregated spaces, was first unveiled in Ghana in 2019 and has since been exhibited in numerous American cities, including Chicago, New York and Washington D.C. Rice University is its penultimate stop before Galveston, where it will be for Juneteenth. The monument was unveiled on March 4 and is currently located in front of the Provisional Campus Facilities tents on College Way. The exhibit has been sponsored by Rice’s Center for African and African American Studies, the School of Social Sciences, the School of Humanities and Hanszen College.
Jeffrey Fleisher, professor and department chair of anthropology and interim director of the Center for African and African American Studies, worked to bring the monument to Rice and is part of projects that analyze how slavery is globally interpreted and memorialized in different places. He said that the statue travels to spaces where there have been debates about Confederate monuments to create conversation.
“There’s a lot of discussion around the William Marsh Rice statue, and so I think it’s a really timely and interesting moment for us to kind of think about our own histories of segregation, and the problems that surround monumentality,” Fleisher said.
The monument includes a screen where people can display a message. According to Fleisher, the monument didn’t have a screen originally. He said that the interactive feature of the monument taps into its free speech aspect and how the public can use the presence of the monument to create conversations. Fleisher often visits the monument and has talked to faculty and staff about it.
“I think they’re pleased that this is offering an opportunity to think about difficult subjects,” Fleisher said. “I don’t think we have a lot of public opportunities on campus to do that … and I think this allows us to have those conversations in a different kind of way.”
Molly Morgan, lecturer in the anthropology department, said that she thinks the Blank Slate monument is a beautiful reflection of African American history at different points in time.
“Each one of the figures is so evocative of emotion and of reflection, but then having the blank tablet at the top for people to engage with is such a piece of hope, I think, that lends itself to be open to all kinds of different futures,” Morgan said.
Morgan said that she has seen posts about the Slave Voyages website on the monument, recognizing names of people who have appeared in research about Texas ports that were part of the trafficking of enslaved people. Some of this research is done at Rice.
“I thought that was a really powerful use of the monument,” Morgan said. “I think that a lot of the events that are coming up might provide more opportunity for engagement and for learning through the sculpture.”
Events supporting the Blank Slate monument include a lunchtime picnic at the monument on March 22, a talk by historian Gerald Horne later that evening and a panel discussion and departure party on March 30. Students have also created a StoryMap tracing the tour of the statue through the U.S., researching racial justice movements and the significance of the statue in these different places.
Fleisher said that he is excited for the events and for students to visit and engage with the monument.
“We have a lot of public art on campus, but I think a lot of that art tends to be more abstract. I think, for some of the students, it’s harder for them to connect to it. This is a very visually arresting event. It creates a moment for students to really reflect on,” Fleisher said. “It’s a short visit, but … I’m hoping it has an effect.”
Morgan said that she hopes that, as Rice is reflecting on its own history and the remaking of public spaces, all members of the Rice community will be thoughtful and intentional about what kinds of symbols and spaces they want to create at Rice.
“I think that is what the Blank Slate monument is all about,” Morgan said. “Getting us to think about not only our past and where we have been, but also what kind of future we want to create.”
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