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Abigail DeVille’s Artist Statement for Light of Freedom

Opening today on the grounds of the Momentary, Light of Freedom is a 13-foot-tall reference to the Statue of Liberty’s torch encased in scaffolding and filled with found objects. With this new work, commissioned by Madison Square Park Conservancy, New York-based artist Abigail DeVille also reflects the despair and exultation of this turbulent period of pandemic and protest.

Read DeVille’s artist statement on the work here, then head to the Momentary to see Light of Freedom, on view now through September 26. It is free for all to view.

Abigail DeVille, Light of Freedom, 2020. At the Momentary.
Abigail DeVille. Image courtesy of the artist. Photo by Melissa Blackall.

What Is Freedom?
Abigail DeVille

Freedom is defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action,” or “liberation from slavery or restraint or from the power of another: INDEPENDENCE.”

Freedom, it seems, is easily defined, infinitely elusive. The intense, unrelenting struggle for the happiness of some and abject oppression of others is a dance of death over centuries, in different settings, places, languages, and costumes. All of this, too, defines what it means to be an actor or individual on the American stage. To find yourself here and now is the sum of many decisions, and if you were born here, then none your own.

One of the earliest armed conflicts of the American Revolution took place in New York City, six weeks before the Boston Massacre in January 1770. The Battle of Golden Hill was the result of numerous skirmishes over an embattled liberty pole. There were several injuries but no deaths, so it remains a lesser-known fight.¹

Charles MacKubin Lefferts (1873–1923), Scenes from the American Revolution: Fifth Liberty Pole on the New York Commons, ca. 1910, watercolor, gouache, black ink, and graphite on board, 19 × 7 3/8 inches, Gift of Charles MacKubin Lefferts, New-York Historical Society, 1920.130. Photography © New-York Historical Society.

What is a liberty pole? A liberty pole was first hoisted in the air in the aftermath of the assassination of Julius Caesar by a group of senators in 44 BCE. The senators called themselves Liberatores. They processed through the streets in celebration, bloody weapons raised, one spear capped with a pileus—a brimless, snug-fitting felt hat given to emancipated slaves in Roman society. The Liberatores named themselves agents of the Goddess Libertas, borrowing her rod or staff used in the manumission ceremonies.² The pileus, when conferred liberated, signifying emancipation.³

In the colonies, liberty poles were wooden flag-poles erected by the Sons of Liberty as a simultaneous gesture of celebration and agitation of the Stamp Act’s repeal. The British Parliament passed the contested legislation in March 1765 as a result of Britain’s seven-year war with France for control of the North American continent. [4] Britain argued that this war was for the benefit of the American colonies. The battle was a costly affair. Who should pay for it? Well, the American colonists, of course. Herein enters the Stamp Act which directly taxed the colonists. It was applied liberally and to all sorts of everyday goods.

The repeal of the act was a victory achieved through secret meetings, various boycotts, organizing, intimidation tactics, and destruction of private property.

It was the first victory for the Sons of Liberty, and it pointed to the impending revolution. Who were the Sons of Liberty? They were a group of merchants, lawyers, and other united men of all walks of life scattered in regional factions. [5]

New York’s first liberty pole was raised by the Sons of Liberty on King George III’s birthday, June 4, 1766. British soldiers cut down the first pole, which was located not far from their barracks on the north end of Chambers Street, on August 28. The next day, as the Sons of Liberty were preparing to put another pole in its place, soldiers attacked them. There ensued a saga of the poles. On January 13, 1770, British soldiers attempted to destroy the fourth pole with gunpowder. They failed. Enraged, soldiers attacked men in front of a tavern that served as the sons of liberty headquarters on Broadway. In the days following the brawl, soldiers succeeded in tearing the pole down and chopping it into hundreds of pieces; immediately a two-day conflict involving three thousand New Yorkers raged. The latter defiantly labeled the city’s soldiers’ enemy. Though both sides were armed, there were no deaths.

Significantly, this early battle of the revolution was over a living monument which embodied liberty, property rights, celebration, agitation, free speech, and collective gathering. A century before Liberty Enlightening the World entered New York Harbor, the symbol of Libertas declaring freedom from her ancient bonds was alive in lower Manhattan. It is not lost on me that the symbols this nation metabolized draw from classical struggles of enslavement. Liberation on the continent of North America was fought from the margins. The Black Lives Matter marches redefined the summer of 2020, 401 years after the first Africans arrived in colonial Virginia. A century after the Red Summer of 1919, hundreds of thousands of face-masked Americans walked together to demand life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for Black Lives in America.

Light of Freedom
Abigail DeVille, Light of Freedom detail, 2020, welded steel, cabling, rusted metal bell, mannequin arms, metal scaffolding, wood. 156 x 96 x 96 inches. Collection the artist. © 2020 Abigail DeVille. Photograph by Andy Romer, Madison Square Park Conservancy. The exhibition was organized by Madison Park Conservancy, New York.

Light of Freedom aims to recalibrate lost mythologies embedded in the Statue of Liberty. The blue arms are chain-linked to one another as the flame that burns hottest. The gold scaffold protects an idea of rule by the people. A decommissioned school bell calls for the right to education as much as the right to breathe free. These symbols of liberty nesting dependent on one another swaying together in Veterans Lawn in Madison Square Park.

Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.

Frederick Douglass
West India Emancipation speech
August 4, 1857

This artist statement originally appeared in the catalog for Light of Freedom, published by Madison Square Park Conservancy.

Abigail DeVille’s Light of Freedom was commissioned by Madison Square Park Conservancy, New York and organized by Brooke Kamin Rapaport and Tom Reidy.

 

Citations:

  1. Mariam Touba. “The Battle of Golden Hill: New York’s Opening Act of Revolutionary Bloodshed,” New York Historical Society Museum & Library, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections, January 16, 2020, http://blog.nyhistory.org/the-battle-of-golden-hill-new-yorks-opening-act-of-revolutionary-bloodshed/
  2. “Libertas,” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Libertas-Roman-religion
  3. Sarah E. Bond, “Before MAGA: Mithras, Phrygian Caps, and the Politics of Headwear,” Hyperallergic.com, April 6, 2018, https://hyperallergic.com/436182/before-maga-mithras-phrygian-caps-and-the-politics-of-headwear/
  4. Mariam Touba, “‘No Stamped Paper to be Had’: The Stamp Act 250 Years Later,” New York Historical Society Museum & Library, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections, October 28, 2015, http://blog.nyhistory.org/no-stamped-paper-to-be-had-the-stamp-act-250-years-later/
  5. “Sons of Liberty,” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/event/Sons-of-Liberty-United-States-history-18th-Century

 

Image credit for cover photo:

Abigail DeVille (American, b. 1981), Light of Freedom, 2020, welded steel, cabling, rusted metal bell, mannequin arms, metal scaffolding, wood. 156 x 96 x 96 inches. Collection the artist. © 2020 Abigail DeVille. Photograph by Andy Romer / Madison Square Park Conservancy. The exhibition was organized by Madison Park Conservancy, New York and first exhibited in Madison Square Park.