By Vania Andre
When Rodney Leon was a boy growing up in Brooklyn, his immigrant parents made sure to instill their Haitian culture and history into his young mind.
This teaching has paid huge dividends for the 45- year-old architect, who has garnered critical acclaim and has designed a series of high-profile projects in New York City and beyond.
“My parents were always able to communicate to us as a family in terms of our history and our culture,” said Leon, who lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two daughters. “I think that that plays a role in my being extremely proud of our Haitian and our African heritage. And as a result, when we have these legacies and these opportunities that I think I tend to gravitate towards.”
Recently Leon unveiled his latest project, “Ark of the Return,” a permanent memorial to the victims of slavery, at the United Nations commemorating the victims of the transatlantic slave trade. The work was commissioned by the United Nations, which in 2007, declared March 25, International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
CARICOM proposed building the memorial to honor these victims, displayed at the UN headquarters. Haiti and 88 other countries donated more than $1.7 million to build the monument.
“It makes me feel extremely proud that I can play a role and a part in the commemoration of such an important and historic day,” Leon, who boasts a graduate degree from Yale, said during the unveiling. “I feel really proud that we have a physical marker and a place of remembrance for this annual celebration to take place moving forward.”
The transatlantic slave trade is the largest movement of a group of people in history. Roughly 15 million Africans were forcibly placed on slave ships between 1500 and 1900, with nearly 2.5 million perishing during the passage. During the 18th century, nearly 10,000 slaves arrived to Haiti yearly, which had become one of the main destinations for slaves carried across the Atlantic.
“I hope descendants of the transatlantic slave trade will feel empowered as they remember those who overcame this brutal system,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said, “and passed their rich cultural heritage from Africa on to their children.”
The memorial’s exterior design stands 30 feet high and is built in a way to “reflect the image of a vessel or ship in acknowledgement of the millions of African people transported on slave ships” during the middle passage, Leon said. The memorial’s triangular shape is influenced by the triangular slave trade route between Africa, the Caribbean and the Americas.
Visitors are encouraged to walk through the memorial to “intimately experience” the three primary elements of the interior space – a three dimensional map, a human figure, and a reflecting pool.
The three dimensional map highlights the African continent and the 66 locations where people were taken. The map “depicts the global scale, complexity and impact of the triangular slave trade.”
The second element, a slave trinity figure, carved out of African black Zimbabwe granite, represents “the spirit of the men, women and children who passed away in the middle passage and during the experience of slavery,” Leon said.
“The figure is meant to be a weeping statue. We were inspired by the images of these slaves, and one thing we felt it was important to do was to introduce the element of grief.”
The figure is positioned laying horizontally in front of a wall inscribed with images of the interior of a slave ship. The positioning of the figure is meant to communicate to visitors the extreme physical conditions Africans underwent while they were transported during the middle passage.”
The third element, a triangular reflecting pool, is meant to communicate “where we are today as a human community and our role in educating future generation,” Leon said. “’Lest we forget’ we are doomed to repeat the mistakes and tragedies of the past.”
Leon, who boasts an impressive portfolio of projects – including the design of the African Burial Ground National Monument, was selected from 310 applicants for the opportunity to create the historic monument.
Much of his work is focused on rebuilding and reconstructing post-quake Haiti in a sustainable fashion. His projects include Haiti SOFTHOUSE and Kaye Jodia Today’s House; both community development and housing plans in Haiti.
The naming of the memorial comes from the “Door of No Return” on Senegal’s Goree Island, where millions of slaves held in captivity on the African coast before they were transported overseas.
We felt the “Ark of Return” was a good counterpart to the “Door of No Return” in its ability to communicate and educate people about what happened.
The memorial is a “spiritual space of return,” Leon said, a vessel where we can have a “rebirth,” while never forgetting.