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Statue Depicting Three Large Women Irks Harlem Neighbors

By DNAinfo Staff on July 2, 2010 11:47am  | Updated on July 2, 2010 11:51am

By Simone Sebastian

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

EAST HARLEM — A "larger-than-life" statue in front of a new luxury condominium building in Harlem is drawing protest from neighbors.

The bronze statue of three large women was commissioned by developers of the 5th on the Park development and placed in front of the 28-story high-rise last week.

Immediately, neighbors voiced objections, calling the piece an affront to the neighborhood's black residents.

"I don't like it," said Vivian Webb, 66, who lives across Fifth Avenue from the luxury building. "I'd like to see them take it away."

Many neighbors said the figures look like depressed, underprivileged black women. They said it's a jarring contrast to the well-to-do residents living in the building behind it.

"i don't understand why you would want three, sad black women in front of this building, particularly when i don't think that building is for the people of the community," said Greg Barnes, 23, who lives nearby.

"It's like putting Aunt Jemima in front of a confederate flag," said Chaun Valentine, a 37-year-old Harlem resident. "The symbolism of that was like a kick in the face."

Fifth on the Park, which stands on the corner of 120th Street, boasts a 24-hour concierge, a pool and a gym, valet parking and a children's playroom for its upscale residents, according to its website.

The artist and developers of the building say that's a misunderstanding of the sculpture's intent. Nnamdi Okonkwo, the artist, said he did not craft the statues with a specific race and size in mind.

"When people say that, they put a knife in my heart," said Nnamdi Okonkwo of people who describe the figures as fat or African-American. "These forms for me are a way to express the majesty of the human spirit that can be found amongst all groups of people."

Okonkwo said the size of the women is symbolic of humanity's "generosity of spirit" and "largeness of soul".

He broke down while talking about the controversy surrounding his piece.

"For people to think that I am doing something negative, just kills me," he said, choking back tears. "This is what comes from my heart."

Okonkwo is Nigerian and lives in Atlanta. He titled the piece "Friends."

Lewis Futterman, who served as director of development for the project, commissioned Okonkwo after seeing a smaller version of the piece at the 2007 National Black Fine Arts Show.

He said he wanted to incorporate fine art with an African-American or Latino theme into the building, artwork "that we felt would be ethnically reflective of the neighborhood that was already there."

A new statue outside of the 5th on the Park condominiums has created controversy between the building's developers and long-time residents of the Harlem neighborhood.
A new statue outside of the 5th on the Park condominiums has created controversy between the building's developers and long-time residents of the Harlem neighborhood.
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Simone Sebastian/DNAinfo

Futterman said he liked Okonkwo's work for what he saw as a positive message.

"I felt the strengths of the women and their friendship, the sisterhood, was very appealing," he said of the figures.

He rebuked the idea that putting the piece in front of a luxury building is offensive to less-privileged neighbors.

"We had some people say, 'How can you put that there when most of the people in the neighborhood can't afford to live in your building?' And I said, 'So they can enjoy looking at it.'" Futterman said. "We are not hiding it in a place that only the people in the building can see."

Harlem resident Leona Sillah, 63, said she could see both sides of the issue. She likes the artwork, but notes that it looks "out of place."

"At first glance, you say, 'Look at those big, black women in the middle of that multi-million dollar complex," she said. "But then, on second thought, so what? ... It looks friendly. It looks like a community. I would like to be in that mood myself."