For his first major public art commission, artist Charles Gaines presents a new series of monumentally-scaled works that contend with ongoing legacies of colonialism and slavery in the United States of America. The works take root in the landmark Supreme Court ruling of the Dred and Harriet Scott case.
One-hundred-sixty-five years ago, the United States Supreme Court ruled on Scott v. Sanford, a case brought by Dred and Harriet Scott against their enslaver’s estate, of which they were considered property. That ruling, which would come to be known simply as “the Dred Scott decision,” established that no person of African descent, enslaved or free, was eligible for U.S. citizenship and had no right to sue for their freedom. The precedent would not be overturned until the 14th Amendment over a decade later, and has endured as one of the starkest examples of American duplicity—a “land of the free” built and maintained on violent domination—with which we continue to grapple in today’s movement for racial justice.
“THE AMERICAN MANIFEST IS INTENDED TO TAKE US THROUGH THE SLIPPERY CONTRADICTIONS THAT MAKE UP THE AMERICAN NARRATIVE.” — CHARLES GAINES
Spanning three sites in New York City and Cincinnati, Ohio over two years, The American Manifest offers a multifaceted engagement with history, implicating northern “free” states in their dual roles of both maintaining and abolishing slavery. Through large-scale sonic and sculptural works, the project grapples with the entangled systems of property, citizenship, and freedom that enable and further white supremacy in the United States of America. The American Manifest demands the viewer contend with the afterlives of slavery that inform the racialized systems, myths, and logics that underpin the nation’s foundation and persist today.
Sited within two historically influential American cities, and tracing these significant waterways and ports of the northeast, The American Manifest unfolds in three chapters.
Times Square, New York | July 13 – September 23, 2022
The project originates in Duffy Square at the heart of Times Square with a sculptural installation, Roots, evoking the area’s pre-colonial landscape, and performance of Manifestos 4: The Dred and Harriet Scott Decision. Using the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred and Harriet Scott decision as the basis for Manifestos 4, Gaines grounds the opening of The American Manifest in this consequential moment in American history.
Governors Island, New York | October 15, 2022 – June 2023
Moving Chains, a 110 foot-long kinetic sculpture, sits at the base of Outlook Hill on Governors Island in New York Harbor with views of the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and Lower Manhattan. Visitors may enter the sculpture evoking the hull of a ship, reverberating with the low rumble of nine colossal chains rotating overhead. Complicating narratives of slavery that easily demarcate northern virtue and southern sin, Moving Chains illuminates the exchange of people, capital, and goods cycling between the north and south that made up the slave trade. In the totality of the experience, from the sound of the chains to the overall scale of the immersive sculpture, Moving Chains calls attention to the political, judicial, and economic systems that underpin the nation’s foundation and continue to shape the lives of Americans today.
Cincinnati, Ohio | Fall 2023
Opening in multiple locations throughout Cincinnati in Fall 2023, The American Manifest will travel to the banks of the Ohio River in Cincinnati’s John G. and Phyllis W. Smale Riverfront Park, accompanied by an additional site-specific commissioned work to deepen the geographic nuances of settler-colonial expansion. The Ohio River has historically represented both a route to liberation, as the Underground Railroad pathway between slave and “free soil” states, as well as a route used to transport enslaved persons to the infamous port of New Orleans. The project’s journey to this location from New York makes a final connection between the plantation logic of people as property, federally recognized in the case of Dred and Harriet Scott, and the era of Manifest Destiny and westward expansion, which established the American West landscape as the rightful property of the United States government.
Charles Gaines: The American Manifest is made possible in New York and Cincinnati by the visionary support of the Ford Foundation, Lambent Foundation Fund, a fund of Tides Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, VIA Art Fund, FotoFocus, The Stavros Niarchos Foundation, Charina Endowment Fund, Donald A. Pels Charitable Trust, the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Foundation, Morgan Stanley, Wave Pool, and mediaThe Foundation, inc.
Major support is provided by Hauser & Wirth, Suzanne and Bob Cochran, Marie Douglas, Karl Iagnemma and Ann-Kristen Lund, Jacob and Deborah Kotzubei, Jon Neidich, Bob and Renee Parsons, Sanjeev Rathi, Eric Richter, Waddell Family Foundation, Jed Walentas, Christopher Walker, Margaret Wang, Debi and Steven Wisch, and additional anonymous donors.
We are also grateful for the support of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA); public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) in partnership with the City Council and Mayor Eric Adams; and the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) with the support of Governor Kathy Hochul and the New York State Legislature.