Earlier this month the abstract figurative artist Angelbert Metoyer unveiled his monument “I am Barbara Jordan” in downtown Houston, honoring the first African American woman to ascend to the U.S. House of Representatives. The bronze monument is the center-piece of the newly named Barbara Jordan Plaza, and is something of a stylistic departure for Metoyer, whose primary focus in the sculpting of the monument was to communicate her profound impact on American and global history, particularly in regard to the ideals of liberty and justice to which she dedicated her life – as such, his huge seated figure has one hand outstretched to the viewer, and one resting on The Constitution, which lies heavily upon the US flag draped across her legs. While the monument is largely figuratively traditional, the artist, unsurprisingly, also considered the immortal and esoteric in his creation – exemplified in the strange deep blue geometric shapes that form the back of the sculpture, framing the city skyline. For Metoyer, the monument is intended as a conduit for viewers to connect with, give, and receive from the legacy of Jordan, while considering their own purpose upon the planet. “I chose Angelbert because I wanted a monument that was first and foremost a piece of contemporary art rather than a conventional bronze statue,” says director of POST Houston Kirby Lu, who commissioned the piece for the city. “Because nowhere in Angelbert’s body of work is there a conventional statue, it was taking a risk. But his biography played a really important role, in that he grew up in the district that Congresswoman Jordan represented. I knew if the pieces came together right, there was no other artist more suited for this project.” Here, Metoyer breaks down the process behind the creation of the monument, and tells us why the political and the spiritual are inextricably linked.
What did you learn about Barbara Jordan that you did not already know when making this sculpture, and how much of a departure from your practice does it represent?
I think Barbara Jordan is someone that is super hard to know – there is the Barbara Jordan that designed herself to be of service to the American people, and I am inspired by her accountability, dignity, and tenacity in doing so. She worked tirelessly throughout her life to achieve her goals of social justice and equality for all. I spent a lot of time researching her through the dedicated Barbara Jordan archives at Texas Southern University in Houston, and also at the George Washington Carver Center in Austin. My preparation for the work stemmed from my past composite and sand-casting sculptural works, along with my earlier use of copper, silver, and clay on a smaller scale. However, the opportunity to engage in monumental sculpture felt like a natural evolution for me as a multidisciplinary artist and it feels evident that I was ready to answer a calling of this scale.
What is exciting for you about having work in a public space?
It is exciting for me to make a work that is in the service of Barbara Jordan’s legacy, and to be in the service of the history of Houston. Being an artist is often a very internally driven endeavour, but making a public work moves you out of that sphere. Everything in a sense is ‘outside of the art world’, but the moment you realize that, the world becomes eternal. Knowing that, I created something to stand the test of time that I hope will exist forever. Witnessing people interact with the sculpture, observing them climb and experience the tactile aspects of it, is both exciting and fascinating. I acknowledge my role in service in this context, and it is a humbling and honest experience. Working on something that exists outdoors, and is part of a different facet of my practice, is transformative for both me as an artist and the individuals engaging with the work.
How do you think Barbara Jordan would consider the current political paradigm in the US?It's challenging for me to answer that. As a Black American, I live in a world where every action is imbued with societal significance. I believe merely inhabiting the body of a Black American is a revolutionary act. However, I prefer to view my work as spiritual and artistic, not as a political statement.
What would you say are the core values Barbara Jordan held, and where does her value system overlap with your own?
I don’t see it as a value system. I see it as discovering a calling, and never choosing to do anything else. You just answer where you’re being called. And I am now being called to do these monumental sculptural pieces. I have never done anything else, but be an artist, just like Barbara Jordan never did anything else – she was a public servant her whole life. I think we share that relentless commitment to our calling. I don’t see myself as a political person, but what I think resonates with me, and my inspiration from Barbara Jordan, is the decision and the fortitude to forge yourself, your own voice, your vision, and to fight for what you believe in, and to never stop doing that.
Is it particularly fulfilling to have this monument erected in your hometown of Houston?
Creating this sculptural work of art is an immense honor and gift. I love my city and I think the evidence of that is in the harmony of this artwork and the reception it has received from art enthusiasts, community members, and Jordan family and friends. It is transformative in that way; it brings together people from all walks of life and different backgrounds, and calls them to engage with her life and legacy. I hope it inspires viewers to engage with this city and this country, and to start their journey and understanding of Barbara Jordan’s voice, principles, and vision for the future. In general, I think art in the public space should serve many functions: exploratory, investigative, inspirational and educational, all within the architecture of beauty and transformation. This is what I hope to add to my future works in the public space – a pure focus on how we experience art.
Find out more about the artist at https://www.angelbertmetoyer.com/