Elizabeth Alexander is a poet, academic and the current president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, America’s largest funder of the arts and humanities. The daughter of Clifford Alexander Jr., the first Black secretary of the Army, and Adele Logan Alexander, a history professor, Elizabeth was born in Harlem and attended the March on Washington as a baby. Mentored by Derek Walcott at Boston University, she went on to chair the African American Studies department at Yale University, before moving to Columbia’s English department. Alexander has published numerous poetry collections and her poem “Praise Song for the Day” was read at the 2008 inauguration of Barack Obama. She was married to artist Ficre Ghebreyesus until his death in 2012. Recently, the Mellon Foundation has undertaken the Monuments Project, a $250 million fund to transform America’s commemorative landscape, taking into account histories and identities who currently lack representation in national memorials.
Interview by Theaster Gates
Portrait by Sharif Hamza
THEASTER GATES What do monuments mean for you personally, and what does it mean for an institution to be rethinking monuments? What’s happening in the field of arts as it relates to this project?
ELIZABETH ALEXANDER What’s fascinating is that there isn’t really a field as such. Over the last few years of the project, the conversation around monuments has been catalysed by the removal of Confederate monuments where people are asserting that they don’t want to live in the midst of these false idols. Having gone to Richmond and seen the graveyard of Confederate monuments in the sewage treatment plant where they’re laid out, and seeing the empty plintEA, I have an understanding of the scale and the heft of the question. It’s interesting you ask about how I feel personally, because I never think about it personally – although, of course, everything we do has an individual motivation. We started when Trump was in office and there was a great deal of contestation around who America is, who belongs here and whose stories are told. The intensity of all of that has only gotten worse. When we started this work I thought I could go to a database, find out where the statues are and go from there, but there was no database, no inventory. When we made one, we found that it was far worse than we could have even imagined. In Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “Negro Hero: to suggest Dorie Miller”, about the 19-year-old gunman Doris Miller who saved a battleship crew of white people from drowning in World War II, there’s the line, “I had to kick their law into their teeth in order to save them.” Poets have been keeping the history all along, and people in families have been keeping stories alive. Native people have been keeping their stories the longest. There’s the story of the Kaw People, the native folks in Kansas who had their 25-tonne Sacred Red Rock ripped up out of the ground and moved so that it told a story that wasn’t truthful. Artists, people and communities hold the truth. I can’t think of anything more powerful than a large prac- tice and resource at this particular moment in time. We are in a backlash that I didn’t quite anticipate the force of, as far as book banning goes and the attacks on learning.
TG The attacks on affirmative action.
EA All of it. The wedding website story in the Supreme Court. Sonia Sotomayor would say, let us not mistake what has happened today: a protected class of people can now legally be discriminated against. I’m just trying to go full speed ahead as you just don’t know how long it will last. But overall, the story is one of great light and excitement. I love learning the stories and being able to help people give form to them, and seeing and honouring the work. The thing about monuments is that everybody encounters them in public. It’s not some museum you have to pay admission to; you come across them when you’re going about your business.
TG If part of what art tries to do is to give material form to thought, it seems that if you look at the history of structural racism we must give form to unconscious and conscious thought. Monumentalising has been so effective at helping to subdue memories but the tool is neutral. Art doesn’t know if the sculpture of Jefferson is right or wrong. It’s the institutions that commission like the Daughters of the Confederacy that want to create strongholds of consciousness. Part of what you’ve been able to do in your service is dismantle some of that, understanding the importance not only of removal, but of replacement.
EA To be very precise about the initiative, there are four buckets and the first one is for research, the second is for recontextualisation, the third is commissioning and the fourth is removal. In an early Monuments Lab in Philadelphia, nothing was taken down. They had artists go to places that existed and make something to be in conversation: Hank Willis Thomas’ Afro pick in front of the statue of Frank Rizzo, for example. What I always hasten to add is, I ain’t got no shovel. When people in the communities that have been doing the restitution work make the decision that they don’t want something there, that’s when we might come into the picture, but not in a prescriptive way.
TG If a community has decided that a monument doesn’t make sense where it is, they don’t always have the resources to hire a crane and shut down a city block in order to remove it, right?
EA We did the last round of grants with my colleague, Justin Garrett Moore, who understands this so precisely through his work as an architect and a city planner in New York City. Cities are always going to put schools and roads and streetlights ahead of monuments, so our involvement means you can keep it going. In Chicago there are nine projects running.
TG Hats off to you and the leadership of Mellon and Justin, a beautiful young brother, and to the team. You have created architectural urbanistic equity, so that when young kids go to school, they are affirmed in their culturehood. You talk about a protected class being undermined, but there are self-protected classes that don’t want their power dismantled, and they’re doing everything they can to maintain it. The beautiful partnership of philanthropy to artistry creates zones of equity to contend with those very powerful forces. This brings me to poetry, because the poetry that I love the most contains conflict. What are your thoughts on the relationship between language and action?
EA I knew that I wanted to be a writer, and I was deliberate about that, but at first I wanted to be a journalist and then I wanted to write short fiction. Then a teacher said, “What you’re doing is poetry.” He wrote out my words and broke the lines, and said, “You see that’s what you’re doing? Go away and come back when you have figured out how to do it.” I was very lucky because I had gone to that school to find this poet [Derek Walcott] because his work spoke to me so deeply. For poetry, the characteristic that is so extraordinary is its precision – to be able to say something very exact in a very small space that still has nuance and room for interpretation, to make something to return to. What we know about the structure of the blues is that in “I got a problem”, it’s always “I’m giving you that problem because you understand it, you might have lived it”. The I is always we and though the I is very specific, in that particularity we can understand sorrow, loneliness, love, betrayal, joy. The distillation of poetic form also makes it very transmittable and precision of expression and thought is a useful tool in the broader work of social justice. What does it mean to be a philanthropic engine? We’re not going to use a flabby version of the language. As a Black woman with a driving agenda, I have to be so precise. I can’t misspeak by a syllable.
TG Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to get to know the work of someone who’s very important to you, Ficre Ghebreyesus. The work in particular that I saw at Galerie Lelong moved me so much because I could see the love of a diligent person amplifying her belief in someone else’s artistic practice. I would love for you to talk about Ficre’s work and the ways in which his practice has impacted your sense of art, your sense of self and your own creativity.
EA Thank you for asking. The great fortune of my life was the 17 years that we spent together, not least because of the two extraordinary children that they produced. It was a beautiful union and an incredibly rich love and partnership. We were very intensely in each other’s practices and in the studio several times a week. I would show him every draft to which he would respond with absolute honesty and absolute rigour. What you sometimes want is, “Oh, baby, that’s beautiful, that’s done!” Sometimes he would put his finger at a place in the poem and say, “This is where the problem is.” Dammit, I was trying to be done with my poem! I can’t piece back together the conversations we would have in the studio because it was really one constant conversation. He left Eritrea because of the war, and his whole life was in the shadow of conflict. To learn about his extraordinary culture, to be part of that extended family, food and practice, all of that was a tremendous gift and the world I brought to him was a gift, too. Together, we had the whole Black world – the things that were not Eritrean or African American were Black diaspora touchstones for each of us. It all came together in a way that just felt infinitely rich. Now that he has passed, I have the privilege of living with his work. In the room I’m in now, there are two paintings of his. Just the other day, I saw a blue foot in the painting that I had not noticed before. I thought about Zora Neale Hurston, and the point in Their Eyes Were Watching God where she calls death “the strange being with the huge square toes”. As a teacher, I was always reading to him the things that I was teaching so I’m thinking, goddamn, with the square toe, this blue foot here is death. I’m still having a conversation. Aside from the awfulness of his loss, what an ongoing gift he has given. We did not know that we were outrunning time but because he was shy, he wanted to be left alone to make the work – which means that now I have a vast collection. What are you to do when you have 1,000 paintings, photographs and objects? You have a responsibility, and sometimes responsibility is just given to us. Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. ◉