New Columbus Park sculpture “Mind Forged Manacles/Manacle Forged Minds,” examines fences, incarceration

african sculptures inside fence in sculpture "mind forged manacles/manacle forged minds"
A new sculpture, “Mind Forged Manacles/Manacle Forged Minds,” by Fred Wilson, now stands in Columbus Park. The piece examines fences and how they separate people and communities.
Daniela G. Maldonado

A new ten-foot-tall sculpture, “Mind Forged Manacles/Manacle Forged Minds,” is now on display in Downtown Brooklyn’s Columbus Park discusses fences and their use to separate communities and people in Brooklyn and around the world.

Fred Wilson’s first large-scale public sculpture, the piece went up at the end of June and will remain at the park behind Brooklyn Borough Hall for the next year. The exhibition is presented by city-based public art group More Art and was funded by Downtown Brooklyn + Dumbo Art Fund, which was created under New York’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative.

close up of sculpted human face through fence
The piece, on display now through next summer at Columbus Park, represents incarceration, detainment of illegal immigrants, and the ways fences divide people and communities. Daniela G. Maldonado

“We are proud to exhibit Fred Wilson’s powerful artwork in Columbus Park through our Art in the Parks program,” said NYC Parks Commissioner Sue Donoghue. “Thanks to More Art and the Downtown Brooklyn + Dumbo Art Fund, this sculpture will make Downtown Brooklyn’s parkland more vibrant while calling attention to important questions about barriers, justice, and freedom.”

“Creating spaces in our communities and public parks for such representative and powerful art is important. While some people prefer learning their history through stories or lectures and documentaries, creating expressive art allows someone to interpret historical facts and their relevance today. Fred Wilson’s sculpture does just that,” said Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso.Thank you to our colleagues at Downtown Brooklyn + Dumbo Art Fund for supporting such an important exhibition.”

The  sculpture depicts six African figures fenced in from the rest of the world behind layers of ornamental fences and gates. The piece is meant to evoke security, gates communities, the detainment of immigrants and incarceration of Black men and the poet William Blake’s concept of “Man Forg’d Manacles” — which More Art describes as self-created barriers to personal and societal growth and freedom, built by fear, division, and perceptions of difference.

statues inside fencing in sculpture called "mind forged manacles/manacle forged minds"
“Mind Forged Manacles/Manacle Forged Minds” features 10-foot tall fences encasing six African figures. Daniela G. Maldonado

While Wilson did not create the sculpture specifically for Columbus Park, it does interact, in a way, with the park’s existing artwork and surroundings — “Mind Forged Manacles/Manacle Forged Minds” stands between a sculptures of abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher and Christopher Columbus and the Kings County Supreme Court.

“For the next year, ‘Mind Forged Manacles/Manacle Forged Minds’ will transform Downtown Brooklyn’s Columbus Park into a place for reflection on themes related to history, freedom, security, incarceration, race, immigration and how they’re reflected in our public spaces and monuments,” said NYC Cultural Affairs Commissioner Laurie Cumbo. “I invite all New Yorkers to encounter this powerful installation by Fred Wilson firsthand. Thank you to More Art and the Downtown Brooklyn + Dumbo Art Fund for presenting this extraordinary installation.”

Wilson’s longtime use of metalwork, blacksmithing and iron work is partially owed to his time in Africa and the Caribbean where the use of gates for protection is prevalent. His work often challenges cultural symbols and everyday objects with the goal of inviting viewers to rethink the narratives they believe.

artist Fred Wilson poses for photo
Artist Fred Wilson worked with More Art for several years to complete his first large-scale public sculpture, now on display in Downtown Brooklyn. Photo courtesy of More Art and the artist. 

This project is the product of a years-long collaboration between More Art and Wilson — developing the piece, involving the community, and selecting a location. The public art group also partnered with the Center for Court Innovation, a group working to create a humane justice system, for creative workshops inviting young adults, aged 18-24, to think about the issues raised by Wilson’s sculpture. They will also be a part of future workshops at the sculpture and programming around it. 

“Public art has always been celebrated in Downtown Brooklyn and Fred Wilson’s transformative sculpture builds on our mission to revitalize the streetscape with art that aims to educate,” said Regina Myer, president of Downtown Brooklyn Partnership. “Through this grant, our community will have an opportunity to pause, reflect and engage in meaningful dialogue while considering how the installation magnifies historical themes. Powerful art like Mind Forged Manacles/Manacles Forged Minds plays an important role in raising awareness around key political and social issues and is critical to the foundation of our neighborhood.” 

Programming at the site throughout the year will include dance, performances, music and spoken word poetry.