“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. Without 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 the thunder and lightning, they want ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.”
– Frederick Douglass (August 3, 1857) quoted by Abigail DeVille
About the Artist
Born in 1981 in New York, Abigail DeVille received her Master of Fine Arts from Yale University in 2011 and her Bachelor of Fine Arts from the New York Fashion Institute of Technology in 2007. Recent exhibitions of her work include Brand New Heavies at Pioneer Works, New York (2021), and The American Future at PICA, Portland (2021). DeVille’s work has also been exhibited at The Whitney, Institute of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, The Studio Museum in Harlem, New Museum in New York, the Punta Della Dogana in Venice, Italy, and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. DeVille has designed sets for theatrical productions at venues such as the Stratford Festival, directed by Peter Sellers; and at the Harlem Stage; La Mama; and Joe’s Pub, all for productions directed by Charlotte Braithwaite. She has received honors fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, is a Creative Capital grantee; received an OBIE for design; and has been nominated for The Future Generation Art Prize in the 55th Biennale di Venezia. DeVille was the Chuck Close/Henry W. and Marion T. Mitchell Rome Prize fellow at the American Academy in 2017–2018. She teaches at Maryland Institute College of Art and is a critic at the Yale School of Art.
Light of Freedom is a mixed-media installation through which the artist responds directly to the Black Lives Matter movement and places it within the larger context of America’s long relationship to the idea of liberty itself. The Hirshhorn presentation of the 13-foot-tall artwork situates it within the Museum’s outdoor Sculpture Garden and on the National Mall, where these questions are in direct conversation with our Nation’s most iconic monuments to power.
In Light of Freedom, DeVille draws inspiration from an 1876 photograph that captures the disembodied hand of Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi’s Statue of Liberty in New York’s Madison Square Park, where the fragment was displayed between 1876 and 1882 in order to excite crowds and inspire donations for the Statue’s pedestal. DeVille’s torch is framed by a square of golden scaffolding, and suggests a construction site rather than a polished prize. The artist has exchanged Bartholdi’s solid handle for a latticed cage torch that wraps around a rusted metal bell, seen but not rung. Above it, a flame composed of outstretched mannequin arms, painted deep blue to suggest the hottest part of a fire, stretches to escape from the cage. In referencing America’s long-heralded emblem of freedom, DeVille recasts national monuments as sites that embody an uneven democracy and protect some more than others, and questions the distance between America’s ideals and its actions.
By positioning the torch’s flame to face the US Capitol building, DeVille’s work further interrogates the popular mythology embedded in the National Mall, critiquing America’s promise of freedom and the tenuous nature of the ideals citizens are charged to uphold. The work celebrates “people that hooked each other arm-in-arm, and protested in the face of potentially death through this pandemic, to fight for whatever this nation actually pretends that it was founded or based on,” DeVille has said.
- At the Hirshhorn:
- Abigail DeVille’s Light of Freedom was installed in the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden in October 2021.
- Light of Freedom was welcomed to the Sculpture Garden with a sunrise performance: WAKE UP: Liberation Call at Dawn called citizens to attention on the National Mall at sunrise on October 15, 2021. Through a procession rooted in drumming, the performance referenced various cries of protest and action throughout American history, a narrative that encompasses both lesser-known events such as the Stono Slave Rebellion of 1739 and more infamous ones such as the events of January 6, 2021, at the nearby National Capitol Building. The performance included original contributions by artist-scholar Jadele McPherson, West African Percussion Orchestra Farafina Kan and The JoGo Project.
- Into the Art:
- Listen to the Smithsonian’s Sidedoor Podcast episode Light of Freedom with Abigail DeVille.
- Watch Art21 Film “Light of Freedom” with Abigail DeVille
- Listen to the Art21 Film Preview of Abigail DeVille’s Light of Freedom
- Explore resources on Light of Freedom from Madison Square Park Conservancy
- Watch the 2018 Art21 Film “Abigail DeVille Listens to History” on DeVille’s 2014 project The New Migration
- Into the History:
- Learn more about New York: A Documentary Film by Rick Burns, which includes imagery of the Statue of Liberty’s torch on view in Madison Square Park and helped spark Abigail DeVille’s interest in the history of the statue.
- Learn more about the history of the Statue of Liberty on the American History Tellers podcast with Episode 1 of America’s Monuments, “The Colossus of New York Harbor.”
- About the episode: It’s perhaps the most iconic of American monuments — the Statue of Liberty. A towering 305-foot sculpture of copper and steel that is synonymous with American values of liberty, freedom and self-determination. But it began as a gift from France. And when it first arrived on American soil, its future was far from certain. For over a decade, artists, craftsmen and everyday people from France and the United States worked together on what would be dubbed America’s “New Colossus.” The statue they built would take on new associations with the passage of time — but it would forever remain a symbol of America’s loftiest ideals.
- Read The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus
- Explore the Statue of Liberty with the National Park Service
- Learn more about the 1739 Stono Rebellion, which inspired Abigail DeVille’s opening performance WAKE UP: Liberation Call at Dawn
- With Additional Readings:
- Abigail DeVille: Light of Freedom
- The New York Times, Reimaging Lady Liberty’s Torch to Meet this Moment (October 2020)
“Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real.”—James Baldwin, The Creative Process
New York-based sculptor Abigail DeVille uses history itself as raw material. She researches and mines traditionally hidden and often traumatic stories of Black America in order to raise questions about our present, and through her thoughtful process, creates installations that can both provoke and inspire us. One such work was commissioned for Madison Square Park in New York in June 2020, in real-time response to the political tumult and protests that erupted in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police. DeVille turned her artistic attention to an iconic emblem of American freedom: the Statue of Liberty. The resulting sculpture, Light of Freedom, is on view in the Hirshhorn’s Sculpture Garden starting October 15. Light of Freedom brings the symbols of freedom and equality down to earth, where they meet the complexities of this current moment of reckoning. Situated on the National Mall, a site where slave auctions took place through the late-nineteenth century, DeVille’s work asks that we look closely at the gap between our professed ideals and our actions, and reminds us that liberty itself is an ever-lilting, ever-tenuous work in progress.
DeVille joins Hirshhorn associate curator Anne Reeve to discuss the roles public art and performance can play in bringing to light untold and overlooked stories of our past, as we attempt to understand them in relation to our present.