The first retrospective for John Rhoden at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts sheds light on the history and meaning behind his public art in Philadelphia.
In the latter half of the 20th century, the renowned Black American sculptor completed several commissions in and around the region.
One piece is “Nesaika,” the imposing bronze sculpture that stands nearly 10 feet tall at the entrance to the African American Museum of Philadelphia. Unveiled for the grand opening in 1976, its symbol was once the museum’s logo.
“I find it to be quite fitting in front of our museum,” said Morgan Lloyd, African American Museum program coordinator and lead guide. “Not just because it leans into African iconography, but also because of Nesaika’s purpose.”
Rhoden wanted the statue to be a “symbol of unity” and express both the African and American aspects of the museum’s theme.
Declaring ‘a home for Black people’
The name “Nesaika” means “us, a people” in the Chinook language, and the bronze sculpture was cast via an ancient “lost-wax” process used in West Africa in the 9th century.
“It’s an amalgamation of West African and specifically Inuit American Indigenous iconography,” LLoyd explained. That intention is explained in the program to the statue’s 1976 dedication, now digitized as part of PAFA’s collection.
Commissioned as part of Philadelphia’s groundbreaking Percent for Art program, which required developers building on land acquired from the Redevelopment Authority to allot at least 1% of the construction budget to public art commissions, Lloyd sees the sculpture as Rhoden’s advocacy for the museum’s mission.
“The day that we opened up and we unveiled that statue, it was him declaring that this museum is a home for Black people,” she said. “And a safe space where we can enjoy and explore our cultural heritage.”
Lloyd was thrilled to learn her former museum colleague Brittany Webb was the curator for the Rhoden retrospective. “It’s beautiful to see how she’s maintained his legacy between both institutions.”
The Webb-curated PAFA retrospective displays 70 original sculptures alongside recently processed archival materials from the John Rhoden papers. The exhibition spans his entire career, from the early traditional pieces at Columbia University to the abstract art of his final years in New York.
“When seeing the work for the first time, it’s interesting to think about how it’s shaped by geography and scale,” Webb told Billy Penn. “When he had more time, better resources and bigger studios, his creative ambitions resulted in larger work.”
Rhoden’s connection with Philadelphia began in the 1950s, when he completed his first large-scale commission with the Sheraton Philadelphia Downtown Hotel.
Ornate work lost to modern renovations
Rhoden’s work for the Sheraton was part of the hotel’s construction at 17th and Race streets.
Finished in 1956, “Zodiacal Curved Wall” was an ornate indoor screen composed of forms resembling his smaller bronze work. He also crafted three chandeliers that hung beside the hotel ballroom’s main stairway.
Unfortunately, you can’t see the screen or the chandeliers as they were lost during an earlier hotel remodel, according to Webb.
Rhoden got the opportunity via architectural firm Perry, Shaw, Hepburn & Dean. For materials and assistance, he made an agreement with contractors from McCloskey & Co. Builders.
It was an ambitious and costly effort. Overall, the piece took Rhoden over 1200 hours spanning from April to October 1956. He worked for $10 an hour and used about $1,730 in materials (approx. $19,500 in today’s dollars).
The digitized correspondence between Rhoden and Robert Dean of the architecture firm reveals that he had to defend the expenses of his artwork. Rhoden used pure gold to gilt the outer rods of the stairs and had to repair chandeliers after McCloskey contractors damaged them.
A detailed Frederick Douglass
Another notable piece is at Lincoln University, the HBCU about an hour outside Center City: a 9-foot sculpture of Frederick Douglass.
The legendary abolitionist’s right hand holds an unfurled scroll, symbolizing his renowned oratory skills. Around his left wrist dangles a broken manacle, memorializing Douglass’s suffering and final triumph over slavery.
In the PAFA archives is a program distributed when the statue was unveiled in 1989. It was accompanied by “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the widely recognized Black national anthem, and remarks by Rhoden.
PAFA also digitized correspondence in October 1988 between statue donor Clyde G. Atwell and president of Lincoln University NIara Sudarkasa. Atwell visited Rhoden at his studio and shared his impression on watching the artist at his craft.
“It is almost earth shattering to see how he is able to include every detail in putting it together but make it breathe,” Atwell wrote.
Much better in person
More personal selections from the Rhoden papers are on display at the retrospective, which is the result of the Rhoden estate in 2017 selecting PAFA to preserve his legacy. The institution, which has been around since 1805, won a grant by the National Endowment for the Humanities to organize the digital archives that accompany the physical works.
For Webb, seeing so much material from Rhoden’s life cultivated a closer connection to the artist.
“We never met,” the PAFA curator said, “but seeing his school transcripts, postcards, photos, travel itineraries, grant application rejection letters, and passports provide a sense of his drive and personality that almost bridge that gap.”
You can view highlights of the exhibition online through high-quality photos, but Webb believes this limits the overall effect of the artwork.
“Looking at sculpture is a 360 degrees experience,” Webb said. “I have visitors to the exhibition ask me, ‘Where should I stand to look at a piece?’ There really isn’t one right answer.”
“Determined to Be: The Sculpture of John Rhoden” is open at the Fisher Brooks Gallery at PAFA through April 7, 2024. Around 25 sculptures will have a permanent spot in PAFA’s collection. The rest will be acquired by other institutions.