New sculpture in Madison Square Park uses Lady Liberty’s torch to symbolize city’s struggles

October 27, 2020

Photos: Andy Romer Photography

From 1876 to 1882, the Statue of Liberty’s torch-holding arm was on view in Madison Square Park as a way to garner enthusiasm for the project before it arrived from France. Nearly 150 years later, the torch has returned, reimagined for a different purpose. Commissioned by the Madison Square Park Conservancy, Abigail DeVille’s “Light of Freedom sculpture includes a 13-foot-high torch encased in scaffolding and filled with a bell and the arms of mannequins. The work aims to reflect the current struggles New York City is facing with the pandemic, protests, and political climate while acknowledging the way in which conflict can create change.

The sculpture references the words of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who said in an 1857 speech in Canandaigua, New York: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” The bell, symbolizes the call for freedom, with the arms of blue-painted mannequins acting as the flames.

Evoking both the urban landscape and a physical and metaphorical barrier, the scaffolding has been painted gold, a reference to a line in Emma Lazarus’s poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty that reads, “I lift my lamp beside the golden door,” as the New York Times reported.

DeVille, who was born in New York and works in the Bronx, said her work recognizes the first enslaved African Americans who were brought to New Amsterdam in 1626, and criticizes the Statue of Liberty’s promise of liberty and democracy.

“In my research, I have found that the first Blacks to be brought to New York City were eleven Angolans in 1626,” DeVille said in a press release. “That makes people of African descent the second-oldest group of settlers in New Amsterdam, after the Dutch. Unfortunately, history has erased the contributions and victories of this group. I want to make something that could honor their lives and question what it means to be a New Yorker, past, present, and future.”

“Olympic Theatre, Hand Torch, Madison Square,” c. 1876, The New York Public Library

DeVille’s previous work has focused on untold histories, gentrification, and racism. She participated in the Madison Square Park Conservancy’s Innovating Public Art symposium in 2019. The Conservancy said it has worked to address the way public art can play a role in civic space.

“Abigail DeVille is known for using found materials and for uncovering the hidden record of lives lived in urban populations,” Brooke Kamin Rapaport, deputy director and Martin Friedman Chief Curator of Madison Square Park Conservancy, said. “Art in civic space can often react to pressing issues literally and metaphorically. DeVille’s work is uplifting and contemplative in its recognition of the pandemic, protests and the election season.”

“Light of Freedom” will on display from October 27 through January 31, 2021.


All Photos: Andy Romer Photography

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