If They Should Ask (2017)
Cast concrete, steel, and acrylic lettering
In a city that boasts hundreds of monuments to founding Philadelphians and esteemed visitors, only two publicly sanctioned, full-figured statues are dedicated to historic women: French heroine Joan of Arc and Bostonian Quaker Mary Dyer. In her project, Sharon Hayes sought to address this absence of women as well as the intersectional dynamics of race, gender-identity, sexuality, and class. Her sculpture, If They Should Ask, recognized a long line of Philadelphia women, from the mid-1600s to the present day, who could have been or could be recognized with monuments. Hayes created nine pedestals—based on those on which statues of historic men currently stand across the city—and scaled them to half-size, casting them in concrete and clustering them together in a singular assemblage in the middle of Rittenhouse Square.
To create the inscription that encircled the sculpture, Hayes convened a group of intergenerational, intersectional, and civically engaged women to discuss, as Hayes notes, “the persistent and aggressive exclusion of women from this form of public recognition.” Hayes and these interlocutors initiated an ongoing collection of names of Philadelphia-area women who have contributed to the social, cultural, political, and economic life of the city. A selection of these names were incorporated into the work.
As Hayes stated,
In pointing to the vast contributions that women (inclusive of trans women) make and have made to the city of Philadelphia, If They Should Ask proposes both that these contributions be remembered more actively and prominently in the commemorative objects that populate US cities, and that to do so requires a collective effort of reimagining what a monument can and should be.
An accompanying installation of Hayes’s work related to this project was shown at the nearby Art Alliance.
If They Should Ask was recognized by the Americans for the Arts’ Public Art Network Year in Review as one of the top 50 outstanding public art projects from across the country in 2017.
If They Should Ask is a temporary monument located in Rittenhouse Square that addresses the absence of monuments to women in the city of Philadelphia. The object is a collection of cast concrete pedestals sourced from existing monuments in Philadelphia and materialized at half-scale. Encircled with the names of women who contributed to civic and public life in Philadelphia from early European contact to the present day, If They Should Ask proposes that the persistent and aggressive exclusion of women from this form of public recognition perpetuates historical misunderstandings and reproduces inequality in the city’s economic, social, political, and cultural spheres.
Although the city of Philadelphia is home to over 1,500 public sculptures, there are only two that celebrate the life of a real, historic woman—Joan of Arc and Mary Dyer, neither of whom were Philadelphia residents. The common understanding that such an exclusion is a consequence of a patriarchal system that did not value women’s contributions to public life tells only part of the story. This perception ignores the way in which monuments were utilized as part of a larger racial and gendered project in which whiteness and maleness are produced as identities of civic and political power. In this sense, material culture did not merely reflect political power but helped constitute it. Indeed, many white women were involved, individually and collectively, in organizing, advocating, fundraising, and commissioning large sculptures. That white women asserted their public power by constructing a material reality that consistently excluded them, and certainly excluded any women of color, is just one of the curious perversities that attend this moment of visual culture.
Additionally, the political, social, and cultural labor done by women often did not move into or onto the historical record as women were not named or were misnamed as a result of intersecting conditions of racism, settler colonialism, homophobia, and transphobia.
In pointing to the vast contributions that women (inclusive of trans women) make and have made to the city of Philadelphia, If They Should Ask proposes both that these contributions be remembered more actively and prominently in the commemorative objects that populate US cities, and also that to do so requires a collective effort of reimagining what a monument can and should be.