For One Month, Untold Stories Triumph on the National Mall

A new series of temporary art installations aims to platform American narratives neglected by the National Mall’s monuments.

“The Soil You See...” by Wendy Red Star. Photography by AJ Mitchell

From towering presidential monuments to somber memorials, tales of American history etched in stone abound on the National Mall. Many perspectives, however, remain absent there. A new series of public art exhibitions called “Beyond Granite” aims to level the hallowed playing field by handing over the microphone—or in this case, the chisel—to six artists seeking to champion neglected narratives through a series of temporary installations. The aim of the first group, called “Pulling Together” (until Sept. 18) and curated by Paul Farber and Salamishah Tillet, is to simply tell more of the American story.

“These artists have responded to that bold query with curiosity, candor, and compassion,” Tillet says. “As importantly, their temporary art installations, with their large scale and sweeping historical scope, generously invite the public to remember how Americans have gathered and continue to engage the National Mall as a place of play, protest, and patriotism.”

“America’s Playground” by Derrick Adams. Photography by AJ Mitchell

Instead of romanticized men on horses, expect monuments highlighting the perils of Asian migration after the Vietnam War and spoken tributes to Black church leaders with AIDS. Etched within the whorls of a giant, blood-red fingerprint by Wendy Red Star, for example, is the searing statement from an Apsáalooke scout who addressed Congress over land rights in 1912. Derrick Adams, meanwhile, built a functional playground bisected by a wall printed with a 1954 photograph of Black and white children on a Washington playground after desegregation. “These new installations,” says Teresa Durbin, EVP of the Trust for the National Mall, “are opening the doors to a deeper and more meaningful dialogue about what stories we should pass on to the next generation.” 

The centerpiece recalls Easter Sunday in 1939, when the great contralto Marian Anderson was barred from performing at Constitution Hall. (It was owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution, which didn’t allow Black performers.) Instead, she courageously sang “Of Thee We Sing” for a crowd of 75,000 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Close to where that historic moment unfolded, Vanessa German crafted a statue of Anderson perched atop a plinth adorned with photographs of the crowd. Plastic flowers mimicking Namibian lilies and aluminum hands sprout from under her, nodding to the fragility of Black life in America. She may be dwarfed by Lincoln behind her, but the bold tribute embodies the triumph of “pulling together.”

“Of Thee We Sing” by Vanessa German. Photography by AJ Mitchell
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