Philadelphia revealed its first commissioned statue of an African American girl this week.
The statue, MVP, stands alone at the Smith Playground and Recreation Center in South Philadelphia and is one of about 1,500 public sculptures commissioned around the city. Philadelphia boasts the most public art in the nation but there are not many free standing statues of African Americans, women, or people of color, and this statue is a part of the city’s efforts to be more inclusive.
Artist Brian McCutcheon, an Indianapolis-based artist who lived in the city of brotherly love for a decade, was commissioned to do the piece by the city under its Percent for Public Art program. The program requires the city to set aside money for public art whenever it spends more than $1 million renovating a facility.
McCutcheon researched the city’s sports history and decided that trailblazing Philadelphia icon Ora Mae Washington (1898-1971) would be the inspiration behind the sculpture. Washington was the first well known African American in the early 1900s to dominate two sports, tennis and basketball. She led the Philadelphia Tribunes basketball team in scoring in the 1930s and even served as a head coach for a time. Washington also went undefeated in tennis for 12 years. At one time, Washington was considered “the best Colored player in the world.”
Despite Washington’s extensive achievement and her dominance in multiple sports, she still worked a domestic job throughout the entirety of her sports career, never getting to challenge some of the prominent White players at that time and some even refusing to play against her. She was inducted into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame in 1976, Temple University’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1986 and the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tennessee in 2009.
Margot Berg, Philadelphia’s public art director, said that “It was just a wonderful opportunity to monumentalize the idea of young girls and young African American girls to show them a hero.” When the statue was unveiled, some young campers ran over to get a look at it, saying it was beautiful and even commenting on the resemblance to themselves. The city’s chief cultural officer, Kelly Lee said, “We are so proud that when children and teens come to this playground every day, they will be inspired by this powerful sculpture that looks like someone in their community.”
MVP depicts a middle school aged girl, playing basketball, mid stance, a headband covering her braids.