By Brianne McConnell | [email protected]
Along Alexandria’s waterfront, bright orange spires now rise from the ground below to greet visitors. Designed to detail parts of history and draw in visitors, “Two Boxes of Oranges and Admonia Jackson,” is the latest piece in a series of public art installations at Waterfront Park.
“It’s colorful; it’s vibrant; it’s meant to be engaging,” Nina Cooke John, the artist behind the project, said.
The steel vertical pieces are designed to replicate the hull of a ship. The temporary installation, which officially opened to the public on Saturday, is designed to transport people back to another moment in time. Ships using the waterfront would have not only carried cargo like rum, fruit and livestock, but enslaved people as part of the domestic slave trade.
“It forces you to start thinking what it would have been like at that time and if it really was a working dock … it wouldn’t have been all glitz,” Cooke John said.
Standing on the outside of the display visitors will see blue painted on the steel structures, the color meant to emulate pieces poking up through the water. Walk through to the other side and visitors will be met with contrasting colors and text. Words such as “oranges,” “tobacco” and “mahogany” can be seen throughout the inside of the installation.
Names and identifying information such as “Jane Tailor, female, 39 years” are also included. Cooke John based the text on information from her research on manifests from the ships of that period which detailed the cargo on board. Based in New Jersey, Cooke John received the inspiration for the display from the discoveries over the past few years at the Alexandria waterfront.
In 2015, a hull was discovered during the development of the Hotel Indigo. In 2018, additional hulls were discovered at the site of Robinson Landing.
“The images of those ships, they were partially uncovered. You could see the hull, the wooden members partially exposed. This idea of an archeological dig shows us bits and pieces of the past. Where more is exposed the more you work on the site,’ Cooke John said.
According to the artist, this piece is meant to be multilayered, just like the layers revealed during an archeological excavation. Like archeologists conducting a dig, Cooke John hopes the more that people interact with the installation, the more they will uncover.
“The hope is that people will be interested in history and ask more questions. And then go and look it up,” Cooke John said.
This public art display is the fifth in the city’s installation series commissioned by Alexandria’s Public Art Program.
“Each of the pieces has been so different, but inspired by Alexandria just in different ways,” Diane Ruggiero, deputy director of the Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities, said.
The artists, including Cooke John, were selected for these site-specific pieces by a community task force with approval from the Alexandria Commission for the Arts.
Cooke John began to dig deeply into the history of Alexandria a year ago, when she toured neighborhoods, walked the waterfront and visited Freedom House.
“She’s very thoughtful in her approach. She is heavily based in research. She does a lot of research. And you can see that research reflected in her projects,” Ruggiero said.
Born and raised in Jamaica before immigrating to the United States for college, Cooke John earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Cornell University. She received a master’s in advanced architectural design from Columbia University.
Cooke John began her professional career designing houses and later worked on such cultural institutional projects as the New York Botanical Gardens. According to the artist, her educational and professional background has influenced how she understands physical engagement in a space.
When it comes to this piece, Cooke John said there were several practical considerations to consider.
“With any public art, people are going to be interacting with it, leaning on it, pulling on it, touching it, hanging from it. We had to alter some of the angles to make sure people aren’t skating on it.”
Another consideration: the rising water and constant flooding along the site for the piece. Cooke John said she saw the flooding firsthand on the second day of the near month-long installation of her creation.
“The day they were connecting the lights – they are meant to be able to be submerged once they have been connected, but they weren’t fully connected yet,” Cooke John shared.
According to Ruggiero, this was the first time in the history of the program that the area flooded during the installation process. Just like past installations, this piece will also have curated programming. In the coming weeks, the city will put out a call to local artists to commission an original work of movement and an original work of music to be performed in the space come fall.
“Two Boxes of Oranges and Admonia Jackson” will be on display through November 2023.
The city plans to announce the artist who has been selected for the next public art display in April.
“I think the public art is doing exactly what we want it to do,” Ruggiero said. “It’s activating the site, creating conversations for people and really giving everyone something to look forward to every year.”