American, b. 1941
Maquette for Slavery Memorial, Brown University, 2014
Ductile cast iron, stainless steel
9 x 15 1/2 x 16 1/2 in. (22.9 x 39.4 x 41.9 cm)
© Martin Puryear, courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery
Photo by Jeffrey Jenkins
Puryear was commissioned to create Slavery Memorial by Brown University, to mark and recognize the university’s long-unacknowledged profit from and engagement in the transatlantic trade of enslaved people. Puryear has likened the work—emerging from underground with links of broken chain—to “an unearthing of a buried truth.” Puryear chose to create the work in cast iron, rather than bronze, in order to use a material free from the high-minded associations and stature of traditional memorials, which Puryear felt was inappropriate for this grim and shameful subject. With cast iron, Puryear also sought to make a connection between industry and slavery: “Slavery was, in fact, an industrial reality. It was a way this society created wealth. It was a way in which it measured wealth. To me, the memorial should reflect that. I hope that I have created an industrial artifact that is partially buried—mostly buried—but that will never, ever disappear from memory.”

Puryear has expressed that the most important part of the Slavery Memorial is the text inscribed into a plaque accompanying his sculpture. It reads in part: “This memorial recognizes Brown University’s connection to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the work of Africans and African Americans, enslaved and free, who helped build our university, Rhode Island and the nation. . . . Rhode Islanders dominated the North American share of the African slave trade, launching over a thousand slaving voyages in the century before the abolition of the trade in 1808, and scores of illegal voyages thereafter. Brown University was a beneficiary of this trade.”