Renewal, 1998
Ted Weiss Federal Building, African Burial Ground, 290 Broadway

This site is included in LMCC’Creative Insider’s Guide to Lower Manhattan, sponsored by Launch LM.

In 1991, construction of a General Services Administration building unearthed a historic revelation. Buried 24 feet below ground laid the remains of hundreds of bodies that had been lost to history. The site was eventually recognized as an African Burial Ground where both free and enslaved black people were buried from the 1690s until 1794. 419 bodies were excavated, with estimates of the total number of buried bodies ranging somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000. Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and declared a national monument by the National Park Service, the former burial ground is the site of the African Burial Ground Visitor Center and other educational initiatives that reflect upon the previously lost history.

Tomie Arai is a New York-based artist who has created temporary and permanent public, community-based artworks for over three decades. In 1998, Arai was commissioned to create a mural to commemorate the site of the African Burial Ground. Arai’s 38-foot silkscreen mural, Renewal, in the lobby of 290 Broadway sits atop part of the burial ground itself and considers the charged significance of the location. Renewal takes on the task of paying tribute to this hallowed ground through four connected silkscreens that contain imagery representing the labors of slavery as well as the struggles implicit to the sacred site. A map of the former burial ground –designated as the “Negros Burial Ground“– anchors the mural’s mountainous center, while its two flanking pillars contain imagery of slavery’s Middle Passage and the skyline of New York. The mural also includes images that evoke the horrors of slavery, such as auction blocks, slave shackles, and crowded ship hull diagrams. The names of New York City’s first free black people –Paulo Angola, Big Manuel, Little Manuel, Manuel de Gerrit de Reus, Simon Congo, Anthony Portugis, Gracia, Peter Santomee, Jan Francisco, Little Anthony, and Jan Fort Orange– who were emancipated by the Dutch in 1644, populate the mural as well. Taken together, Renewal mines the harrowing history of slavery in New York while also pointing to landmark successes of the African-American fight to gain rights and representation in the United States.

Renewal’s superimposed silkscreens suggest the fragmented lens of history that allowed the site to go unacknowledged for centuries. The work’s overlapping images metaphorically reflect the stratified levels of geological and archaeological processes central to the context of the burial site. Arai’s mapping conflates images of colonialism, labor, and community formation into a striking representation that sifts and reclaims these complex and layered histories for further contemplation and consideration. Of the mural’s four printed colors –red, green, gold, and black– the gold gilds the mural’s images while the red ignites the figures with incendiary urgency. Arai’s Renewal is a moving testament to the previously lost and forgotten ancestors of slavery’s past, whose memory can now be secured and rightfully honored with an ongoing renewal of commitment.

Alex Fialho


Photo Credit:

Commissioned through the Art in Architecture Program
Fine Arts Collection
U.S. General Services Administration
Photography by Carol M. Highsmith