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Sculptor Uzikee Nelson easily makes space in his Columbia Heights row house for his massive creations. In front of one window stands “Miss Purlie Mae,” a 7-foot-tall scrap-steel figure of a woman bearing bronze tribal marks and footlong macrame earrings intertwined with cowrie shells and red glass beads. It’s a spinoff of the medallion-headed Akuaba fertility doll of Ghana, and one of six statues Nelson keeps at home. But finding a home for his most towering work ever, Saint Dennard: The Edifying Spirit, was an exhausting chore.
Back in 1995, Nelson was convinced he knew the perfect place to install his 17-foot-tall, 3,000-pound steel and stained-glass tribute to late District educator Cleveland L. Dennard. The artist designed the sculpture for the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) because Dennard, founding president of the Washington Technical Institute (WTI), was crucial in forming UDC in the ’70s and securing its location at Van Ness campus. Nelson figured his work was a shoo-in.
Nelson calls Dennard, his former mentor, a folk hero. He once envisioned UDC students passing by his Africanized ancestral guardian, drawing inspiration from it. A small sankofa bird perched atop Saint Dennard symbolizes the West African belief that one must reclaim the past to move forward; yet when it came to this sculpture, UDC’s board of trustees at the time preferred to keep this piece of the pasta gift from Nelsonshrouded.
“They wanted to put it in the woods,” says Nelson, who taught engineering at WTI and UDC for 23 years before retiring in 1994. “They wanted to put it behind the school. They gave me the royal runaround.”
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Nelson surmises that the sculpture was, as one white art teacher at UDC confided, “too African” for the school. “Blacks feel more comfortable with abstract art than semi-realistic Afrocentric art in public spaces,” says Nelson. “It’s very easy for people to deal with abstract art, because it can be anything. One person might see a starship in it, and another person might see a balloon.” Nelson, however, wanted this piece to promote “cultural uplift” and help build students’ self-esteem.
After a year of circuitous correspondence with UDC officials, Nelson “closed the book on UDC.”
Nelson has a scrapbook chronicling the odyssey of Saint Dennard. The sculpture collected dust in his basement for three years. The scrapbook details the sculpture’s next planned destination: the tiny Nehemiah Center at 14th and Belmont Streets NW. Schematic drawings were developed, permits were secured, and Nelson received confirmation of the dedication date from the Development Corporation of Columbia Heights. An invitation dated May 17, 1997, provides evidence of the installation that never was. The Development Corporation of Columbia Heights silently retreated, says Nelson.
Six months later, the historically black Mt. Zion Cemetery in Georgetown began to look appealing. But only for a moment. Once Nelson realized that very few people would see the sculpture at the seldom trodden burial ground, the site lost its charm. Besides, another lengthy approval process, coupled with his not being “too sure about digging into the ground over there,” finally killed Nelson’s interest.
But after seeing an article in Washington City Paper (8/14/98) about the city’s Adopt-a-Park program, Nelson made headway: He and seven supporters adopted a triangular park at the corner of 16th Street and Arkansas Avenue NW, signing a five-year grounds-maintenance agreement with Department of Recreation and Parks. Saint Dennard: The Edifying Spirit was finally dedicated six weeks ago. “I have to honor and praise the ancestors,” Nelson says. “They protect you from things that may harm you.”Nefretiti Makenta