Those who live outside of Harlem may be unfamiliar with “Queen Mother” Dr. Delois Blakely, but the former nun has been a huge presence since she was sworn in as the Community Mayor of Harlem by then-Mayor Giuliani in 1995.
Now she is making a presence in Queens, a very big one.
The piece, “Queen Mother of Reality” by Pawel Althamer, is a massive, mixed-media sculpture of Blakely reclining in the southern section of the park overlooking the waterfront.
Blakely is known to be a bit of a firecracker. She traverses through Harlem in colorful African dress from 6 a.m. until dark, helping tenants fight their landlords and encouraging residents of the neighborhood.
Photos of the 72-year-old show her as a woman with a big heart who does not take nonsense from anyone. She is a hard worker with a weatherworn face and a soft smile that creeps all the way up to her eyes.
And yet, the sculpture created by Althamer portrays the Queen Mother as an exotic leader with colorful flowers and found objects adorning her like fabric or tattoos.
The figure is almost the exact opposite of who the real Queen Mother is said to be, except for the sculpture’s face which bears the same creased and tough exterior with smiling eyes.
Much like Blakely, the real beauty of the piece is inside. Three steps and a low-angled ramp lead into the chest of the sculpture — not far from where her heart would be.
What look like old bus seats are bolted down on either side of the interior and colorful ribbons streak along the sculpture’s belly.
Along the walls are stained-glass portraits of female leaders, including the classics such as Susan B. Anthony and Frida Kahlo as well as more recent leaders including First Lady Michelle Obama and activist Cecily McMillan — who was recently sentenced to jail for assaulting a police officer during the peak of Occupy Wall Street.
All the women — whether the viewer agrees with them or not — are meant to evoke conversations between friends and strangers alike.
It is an effective tool as individuals who stepped into “Queen Mother” often found themselves whispering to one another — as if not to disturb the inanimate figure they stood within — for a short while and then continuing on their own once they stepped out of the piece.
Every inch of the interior of the sculpture can be accessed, except the head. Where the mind would be in a real human body, there sits an empty ornate chair with flowers, ribbons and colorful objects surrounding it like some sort of shrine to Blakely.
“Queen Mother of Reality” was originally built as part of Althamer’s Performa Commission in 2013.
Now that it has been moved to Socrates, it will act as a “platform for creative dialogue and interactive programming, reflecting the park’s commitment to engaging audiences through public art,” according to the park’s website.
Althamer, an artist with a passion for social collaboration, will partner with Socrates to bring workshops, events and talks throughout the summer that look to invoke Blakely’s pursuits of social justice and community building.
This vision, to discuss Blakely’s work within her community as well as the impact surroundings can have on an individual, makes the sculpture’s placement even more appropriate as the park is surrounded by the Astoria, Ravenswood and Queensbridge houses — three of the nation’s largest public housing complexes.
Special programs will be listed on the park’s website.