Rodney Leon’s Ark Of Return: A Slave Trade Memorial

Stephanie Chang Avila

In September 2013, Haitian-American architect Rodney Leon won the coveted design competition to design a UN memorial to honour the millions of victims of the transatlantic slave trade. Entitled ‘The Ark of Return,’ this New York memorial will serve as a symbolic reminder to visitors of the lasting legacy and lingering consequences of slavery and the slave trade.

The theme of the ‘Permanent Memorial at the United Nations in Honour of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade’ was to ‘Acknowledge the Tragedy, Consider the Legacy, Lest We Forget’. This tripartite theme inspired Leon to design ‘The Ark of Return’ as a memorial that evoked the far-reaching scope of the transatlantic slave trade as it crossed Europe, Africa and the Americas, as well as drawing attention to the hardships endured by those who suffered and survived the ocean crossing, only to face a future of enslavement and often brutal oppression.
Designed in tripartite segments, Leon’s design for ‘The Ark of Return’ seeks to acknowledge the tragedy of the slave trade through not only the ship-like structure, but also a map inscribed in the interior of the memorial that depicts the vast scale of the slave trade and its impact on Africa as lines crisscrossing the Atlantic emanate from the African continent. The second section confronts visitors with the humanity of the trade and its bodily experience. A full scale human figure is laid out horizontally as if in the cargo hold of a slave ship, drawing the viewer’s attention to the atrocity of the Middle Passage in which hundreds of men, women and children were crammed into suffocatingly confined spaces to maximise the profitability of each transatlantic journey. Finally, in the third section, a reflective pool asks visitors to meditate on the experience and to imprint the memory of this human tragedy in their minds.
Watch a clip about the UN Permanent Memorial design competition:
New York is no stranger to the works of Leon. Indeed, Leon’s ‘African Burial Ground Memorial’ is located in Lower Manhattan, a short distance from ‘The Ark of Return’ UN memorial. The ‘African Burial Ground Memorial’ was built to commemorate a burial site that was unearthed during construction in Lower Manhattan. At this site, between the 1690s until 1794, both free and enslaved people of African descent were buried; it was here that some 400 skeletal remains were discovered. Since 2007, the ‘African Burial Ground Memorial’ has been categorised as a National Monument.

African Burial Ground National Monument

The ‘Ark of Return’ will be erected on the grounds of the UN Headquarter as a permanent memorial that will remind viewers of the horrifying realities of the slave trade, which persisted for some 400 years, as well as educate viewers of the persistent consequences of racism and prejudice. According to the official design statement, the ‘Ark of Return’ memorial serves as a ‘symbolic spiritual space and object where one can interact and pass through for acknowledgement, contemplation, meditation, reflection, healing, education and transformation’ and is intended to ‘serve as a reminder of the bravery of those slaves, abolitionists and unsung heroes who managed to rise up against an oppressive system, fight for their freedom and end the practice’.

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