Saturday, June 22, 2024

“Hold,” by Curry J. Hackett and Gabriel Jean-Paul Soomar, is installed in Radcliffe Yard near Harvard Square. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Idyllic Radcliffe Yard on Brattle Street in Harvard Square hosts rotating art exhibits in the cozy, verdant nook known as the Susan S. and Kenneth L. Wallach Garden. You know, those perfectly formed mounds of sand and gravel, the stately, tiered wooden walkway or perhaps the picturesque, grassy green knolls with wispy reeds reaching skyward. The Harvard Radcliffe Institute has held a biennial competition within the Harvard community since 2012 to produce and deliver these public installations.

This year’s winner, “Hold,” by Graduate School of Design students Curry J. Hackett and Gabriel Jean-Paul Soomar debuted before commencement ceremonies: an abstract rendering of a slave ship’s cargo hold. It may just be the institute’s most provocative installation to date, as it stirs the painful legacy of slavery in America and, more pointedly, at Harvard.

The 30-foot, U-shaped structure of wood and translucent plexiglass represents the nave or “hold” of a ship where those forcefully abducted from their native land, put in chains and separated from their families existed for long stretches under inhumane conditions – relative darkness and little food or water – as they were harried across the ocean and into the shackles of plantation enslavement. The rising wall on the Garden Street side of the installation is an evocation of the ship’s sail that caught the wind and drove the vessel.

The open, interactive design invites visitors to step inside the “Hold” and interact with history and the ripples of injustice across decades and centuries. “Sometimes when I go there I see a ruin. Other times I go there and I see a common,” Hackett said over coffee, reflecting on his own interactions with the piece.

Curry J. Hackett, left, and Gabriel Jean-Paul Soomar at the May 15 opening event for “Hold.”  (Photo: Tom Meek)

Hackett and Soomar didn’t come together so much because of a Harvard connection, but because Soomar’s mentor at the University of Miami knew of Hackett, who had taught design at Howard University and the University of Tennessee. The inspiration for “Hold,” Soomar said, came as the two sought to create “an inviting safe place for Black and brown people and others marginalized who might not otherwise have such a space at Harvard.”

“We wanted to bring forth narratives and histories and create a conversation,” Soomar said.

A key conceptual bonding point for the two and the design were the writings of professor Katherine McKittrick, a prominent feminist and activist at Canada’s Queen’s University. Most specifically, her essay on “Plantation Futures” and the notion of enclosure and the walling off of Black peoples. The walls that enclose here go beyond the hull of the ship, as there are other barriers that sequester and separate, be they redlining, disproportionate incarceration or inequity in educational opportunity – the list is long. Additionally, the Radcliffe Institute, an interdisciplinary academic research center with a focus on issues of race and gender, invited applicants to propose topics and themes that might be related to “Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery” report released in 2022 during the tenure of president Lawrence Bacow.

“Hold” is a multimedia experience. An audio component that enriches the sense of immersion is slated to change over the exhibit’s two-year tenure but now plays “A Baptism Story” – a bit of “personal oral history” as Hackett describes it. If you plug in your earbuds and scan the barcode on the plaque, you hear a soundscape Hackett recorded around Boston and the banks of the Charles River – the repetitive clanging of a pile driver at a construction site, the rustle of reeds and pronounced splashing of water – mixed with a looped phone conversation between Hackett and his mother recalling her baptism in rural Virginia and singing a few bars of a hymn.

The recording is meant to evoke spirituality and sensation, Hackett said, though much of the conversation is obfuscated by other sounds to protect the privacy between mother and son while conveying the essence of their relationship and bond. If you go at sunset, there are weatherproof speakers embedded in the ground around “Hold” that play the nearly 15-minute track. “It’s like you’re in the middle of a conversation,” Hackett said. The site-projected audio is far more affecting and immersive than the streamable alternative. Like a good Dolby system, you hear sounds in the aural fore and some that are faraway; from the splashes, you can practically feel your feet in the water. There’s also a track of chimes that play at 11 a.m. Sunday, the time many Black churches schedule services.

The soundscape for “Hold” will play on holidays such as Juneteenth, Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Independence Day.

A new soundscape is expected every three months. Next up, Soomar, who was born in Miami and raised in Trinidad and Florida, will bring a collage of celebratory sounds from diasporic carnivals in Trinidad, London, Boston and Nigeria. “It’ll be like going from one room to another with different music,” Soomar said. From there, Hackett and Soomar, graduates from the School of Design as of May, will curate additional soundscapes, working with Radcliffe staff to draw from the Harvard community.

The ongoing process also provides an opportunity for Hackett and Soomar to reconnect with their creation. The hope is to have other events – community gatherings and perhaps panel talks, Hackett said.

Hackett, who has a design consultancy, is looking to return to the classroom, though where is still to be decided. Soomar will teach this summer at the Arts for Learning program in Miami and will likely launch his own consultancy.

The Radcliffe selection process was something of a sojourn of endurance. Hackett and Soomar submitted their initial design sketches and concept overview early in 2023 and were told that March they were one of five shortlisted entries. They submitted a prototype of their design and in June 2023 found they’d won. It was “fulfilling and humbling,” Soomar said.

As a result of the “Legacy of Slavery” report, the Bacow administration pledged $100 million to redress the stain of slavery in the university’s past, including a public memorial acknowledging the use of enslaved people to build and operate the school. Last week the memorial committee heads, English professor Tracy K. Smith and Carpenter Center director Dan I. Byers, resigned, citing pressures to rush the project. The timeline for the memorial is still unknown, though 2027 was an early goal. In the interim there is “Hold.”