NEW ORLEANS — It's been more than four and a half years since hundreds of people watched the removal of the iconic statue of confederate leader General Robert E. Lee from the 60-foot column at the center of what used to be known as Lee Circle.
Saturday morning, another sculpture was sitting at the base of what is now known as Égalité Circle— covered; it was unveiled at 10 a.m.
More than 12 feet tall, the sculpture is by one of the country's most important artists, Simone Leigh — a New York-based artist who will represent Americans at the Venice Biennale.
The artwork will serve as the grand finale to the months-long Prospect.5 art exhibition that ends Sunday, and it will sit at Égalité Circle until July.
The sculpture— Sentinel (Mami Wata)— “is an homage to history and continued presence of traditions of the African diaspora in New Orleans," according to the Prospect.5 website.
"The title of this work means guard or watchman, and it honors the work done by activists, citizens, and New Orleans city officials to remove symbols of white supremacy while also suggesting the possibility for a new protective spirit at this central downtown location," a statement from the exhibition said. "Sentinel (Mami Wata) takes the diversity of African cultures in New Orleans as a starting point, evoking African folklore and spiritualities. Mami Wata, a water spirit or deity, is known under many names, including Yemaya, across the African diaspora."
The artwork celebrates the rituals practices by the African diaspora — including New Orleans, marking a new historical perspective for Égalité Circle— "wherein the site represents one point in a larger constellation of public art, conversation, and historical memory."
"The ceremonial spoon form of the sculpture references a symbol of status in Zulu culture, so honored in New Orleans," according to the exhibition. "Leigh’s sculpture holds forms of knowledge that have been passed down through spiritual and masking traditions of the city and beyond, wherein masking signifies transformation, not simply concealment."
As to why it sits at the base of the circle rather than the top of the 60-foot column— that was intentional.
"Rather than perched atop the imposing multi-story column that served as the pedestal for the Robert E. Lee monument, this new work of art sits at ground level, not looming over people but rather emerging from among us," the exhibition statement said. "This constellation de-centers whiteness and the legacies of colonialism, renewing access to knowledge and culture that has been suppressed by the falsehoods of white supremacy."