Outdoor Exhibition on the National Mall Spotlights Untold American Stories

In “Beyond Granite: Pulling Together,” six artists have created works for a month-long display

The Soil You See
Wendy Red Star’s The Soil You See… is a seven-foot-tall glass red thumbprint featuring the names of chiefs who signed treaties with the American government, usually with a fingerprint. AJ Mitchell Photography

On Easter Sunday in 1939, singer Marian Anderson gave a performance that would go down in history. Barred from singing at Constitution Hall—owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution, which didn’t allow Black performers—she sang for a crowd of 75,000 from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Now, Anderson’s powerful performance is the inspiration behind “Pulling Together,” the inaugural exhibition in the “Beyond Granite” project, which will host a series of temporary displays on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

“The National Mall is one of the most iconic commemorative spaces in the nation with monuments, memorials and open spaces,” Julie Moore, a spokesperson for the Trust for the National Mall, tells Washingtonian’s Jessica Ruf. “But it’s also a finite space and is continually in demand for additional storytelling opportunities.”

Of Thee We Sing
Vanessa German's Of Thee We Sing shows Marian Anderson's 1939 performance at the Lincoln Memorial, an event that also served as the inspiration for the entire exhibition. AJ Mitchell Photography

She adds that “an extraordinary amount of work” is required “in order to have permanent coverage on the National Mall, so this is a way for more stories to be told without those barriers to entry.”

For the month-long exhibition, curators Paul Farber, director of Monument Lab, and Salamishah Tillet, a scholar of Africana studies, asked six artists to answer the same question: What stories remain untold on the National Mall?

“These artists have responded to that bold query with curiosity, candor and compassion,” says Tillet in a statement from the Trust for the National Mall, one of the groups organizing the project.

The artists have created six temporary installations, including a sculpture of Anderson, titled Of Thee We Sing, by Vanessa German, located near the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Another is called America’s Playground, a monument by Derrick Adams commemorating the history of desegregation in Washington, D.C.

America's Playground
With America's Playground, Derrick Adams reflects on the history of Washington, D.C.’s desegregated public spaces. AJ Mitchell Photography

Several of the installations are positioned in dialogue with the Mall’s permanent monuments. Next to the Vietnam Memorial, Tiffany Chung’s For the Living uses colored rope to map the paths of Southeast Asian immigrants and refugees to “acknowledge the lives of the millions of people who had to flee to safety in the aftermath of the Vietnam War,” per Washingtonian.

For the Living
Tiffany Chung’s For the Living uses colored rope to map the paths of Southeast Asian immigrants and refugees. AJ Mitchell Photography

In Constitution Gardens, near the memorial to the signers of the Declaration of Independence, is Wendy Red Star’s The Soil You See… The artist’s seven-foot-tall glass thumbprint contains the names of chiefs who signed treaties with the United States government, often with a fingerprint, between 1825 and 1880, Red Star tells the Washington Post’s Mark Jenkins.

Two of the installations also incorporate sound. Homegoing, near the Washington Monument, is Ashon T. Crawley’s memorial to AIDS patients, which features a three-part composition by the artist. It is “an audiovisual memorial to queer musicians, choir directors and songs from Black church contexts—often closeted, the fullness of their stories still untold,” he tells the New York Times’ Blake Gopnik.

Homegoing, near the Washington Monument, is Ashon T. Crawley’s sonic memorial to the AIDS crisis. Trust for the National Mall

Let Freedom Ring, by Paul Ramírez Jonas, features small bells that play every note of “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” except for the last, which visitors play themselves on a 600-pound bell.

“In a way, it’s a very straightforward thing,” Jonas tells the Washington Post. “If you participate, the song is complete. And if you do not participate, the song is unfinished.”

Let Freedom Ring
Let Freedom Ring, by Paul Ramírez Jonas, consists of bells that automatically play every note of “My Country 'Tis of Thee” but the last. Trust for the National Mall

Though the works will remain on display only until mid-September, Teresa Durkin, executive vice president of the Trust for the National Mall, hopes they can spark “important, and sometimes hard, conversations in living rooms, classrooms, sidewalks and beyond, about our collective experience and history as Americans,” she says in the organization’s statement.

She adds, “These new installations are opening the doors to a deeper and more meaningful dialogue about what stories we should pass on to the next generation.”

Beyond Granite: Pulling Together” is on view at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. through September 18.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.