Over the weekend, Charlottesville, Virginia, became the latest backdrop for the removal of memorials to the Confederacy.
Still, plenty of symbols of the Confederacy remain in hundreds of memorials across the country. Sculptor Kwame Akoto-Bamfo is challenging them with the interactive sculpture Blank Slate: Hope For a New America.
The sculpture depicts four Black American figures — a slave ancestor, a lynched Union soldier martyr, a struggling mother activist and a baby — stacked atop one another. The mobile art installation pays tribute to the fight for racial justice before, during and after the Civil War.
Traveling on a flatbed truck, the statue has made its way across the country. Locations like Chicago; Selma, Alabama; and Birmingham, Alabama, were chosen for their significance in African American history and the civil rights movement.
Akoto-Bamfo saw Blank Slate as an opportunity to create a broad dialogue about the years of systemic racism Black people have faced. “The Blank Slate monument is giving a voice to all of these people who would otherwise not be able to have their opinions seen or heard by anybody else,” he said.
The public is invited to send ideas about combating racial injustice on the interactive screen that accompanies the statue. In addition, several sites hosted town halls with local elected officials, activists, arts and cultural figures, and students.
The events touched upon different aspects of racial injustice: community safety, health disparities, voting rights, the criminal legal system, education and more.
Akoto-Bamfo has documented African history and heritage through sculptures for 11 years. Although he was born and raised in Ghana, Akoto-Bamfo said he is heavily influenced by Black American culture in his art.
When Akoto-Bamfo came to the U.S., he said, he was “Black first before I am Ghanaian.”
”Whatever happens to an African American, or however they are portrayed, directly affects me,” he said.
The design of Blank Slate first came to fruition in 2019. Initially, Akoto-Bamfo wanted the sculpture to be a counter to Confederate monuments. Often, sculptures of Confederate heroes are placed atop tall pedestals, which Akoto-Bamfo sees as a signal of privilege.
The figures in Blank Slate have no pedestal; rather, they stand on top of the only thing they have — one another. “Our strength and pride comes not from the fact that we didn’t have the privilege and yet we have sufficed,” Akoto-Bamfo said.
From the millions of enslaved people to the Black soldiers who died fighting in the Civil War to the high-profile deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Daunte Wright at the hands of police officers, Akoto-Bamfo expressed that there is an ongoing cycle of injustice in which African Americans are subjected to, yet they transfer hope to the next generation.
The top of the monument features a woman yelling as she reaches forward with a lantern in her hand and a baby on her back. Akoto-Bamfo said the woman represents the present and the baby represents the future.
“She's only protesting and shouting so that her baby will have a better place in the future,” he said — a reflection of thousands across the U.S. who have been protesting against systemic racism.
The House recently voted to remove Confederate monuments from public display in the U.S. Capitol — a major step toward removing symbols of the Confederacy. But, Akoto-Bamfo said, the past cannot be forgotten without acknowledging the present.
“All of this history is being washed away, and yet, the legacy of that history is being filled by people who live now,” he said.
Akoto-Bamfo has created a museum in Ghana to further represent different perspectives of Blackness and, most important, provide a source for healing through his art. His sculptures are also on display in Poland and Germany.
Akoto-Bamfo plans to take Blank Slate around the world, as well. “Racial justice doesn’t belong to anybody in only one country,” he said. “Racial justice is our right, and as an artist, my work is about tackling exactly that.”