‘Tree of life’ makes its way to Van Cortlandt Park

Tijay Mohammed's art exhibit of African baobab tree stirs talk about its spirituality


At one time Van Cortlandt Park was a plantation that enslaved Africans built into what we know today. Tijay Mohammed, a Ghanaian-born artist, wanted others to know that as he visualized an art installation to bring honor to them.

Considered a symbol of life, the colorful mosaic wood and metal baobab tree is a piece of art across from the park’s sacred African burial ground created by Mohammed, who partnered with the Beam Center.

Mohammed creates site-specific installations, collages, and paintings. His work is around the country in various museums, including one in Ghana. He enjoys addressing issues that confront his community and humanity.

Working with Art in the Park, a program that permits temporary art projects citywide, Mohammed identified Van Cortlandt Park as the perfect space for his African-inspired installation because of its African legacy.

While touring the area with Stephanie Ehrlich, Van Cortlandt Park administrator and its alliances executive director, they agreed to install it on the lawn across from the burial ground to begin conversations between the ancestors and the art.

Elizabeth Masella, the senior public art coordinator at the city parks department who runs Art in the Parks, played an integral part in making the installation happen..

“It is early in the season, but we have probably about 50 projects on view in all the five boroughs,” Masella said. “I think this might possibly be one of the largest that we had — and the most colorful.”

The installation was funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of the governor’s office and the legislature, the Jacques & Natasha Gelman Foundation, and the William Talbott Hillman Foundation.

Brian Cohen, executive director, and co-founder at Beam Center, co-founded Beam Camp with Danny Kahn. Kids and teens learn to build and collaborate on big-scale projects at the camp. He said only the materials were about $20,000. “The value has more to do with how it exists,” Cohen said, not the price itself.

“We didn’t think we were good enough for Van Cortlandt Park — I think it’s in the place that it is intended to be,” he continued.

According to Cohen, the installation was supposed to be at Claremont Park in another part of the Bronx. But he thought they shouldn’t make assumptions of communities they aren’t a part of.

“So rather than placing this in some random place in the park, I thought it would be really beautiful to place it near the burial ground,” Ehrlich said. “And when Tijay mentioned he didn’t know that there was an enslaved African burial ground here, he was like, blown away.”

But it could not have been done without the help of Beam’s Fellows, who assisted the production team that began prototyping and fabricating the project in 2022. The installation will be there until Spring 2024.

Beam does not commission work based on location. It comes from the artist. They want the artist to express the most meaningful location to them.

“I referenced all these symbols and maps in honor of my ancestors thinking about the burial grounds — that was my vision to pay homage to them in reference to Martin Luther King Jr.,” Mohammed said. “(In the) I Have a Dream speech, you rephrase how everyone comes together and say that statement in the true definition of baobab.”

Mohammed created the original piece incorporating Adinkra symbols, traditional African colors, and recycled MetroCards to pay tribute to his own ancestors.

There are eight different visual Adinkra symbols on the ground. All of the symbols would be a form of respect because some burial plaques have these symbols on them.

The king of Adinkra used to write the symbols behind his head to represent royalty. He used different symbols to create a mode of communication between his communities. Initially, the symbols migrated from Ghana. However, it was also often used on pottery, fabric, and other architectural structures.

Mohammed used the example of the symbol of strength, which looks like a ram’s horn as sending strength to another community.

In response, these symbols became a mode of communication. Mohammed wants to do the same while adding his own touch of experience after immigrating to America. Instead of a bare tree, he wanted to add leaves.

Mohammed began collecting MetroCards in 2013; he was fascinated by them. He told The Riverdale Press he has about 4,000 or so. And Cohen said there might be 300 on the tree itself.

“All these MetroCards on top of the tree represent leaves, but to him (Mohammed), there a conversation between all the different people who took those trips with their MetroCards,” Ehrlich said.

Teenagers, adults, tourists and some seniors use MetroCards. Each swipe takes them to a specific location. Each swipe to a hospital could be a visit to witness a birth or visit the sick. One swipe can even be a visit to a friend in jail.

“I wanted conversations to continue on top of the tree,” he said. “As we talk here, there is also another conversation up there that is absorbing whatever sound is coming from us.”

He also added that the cards are airborne. They do not exist in Africa. But Adinkra symbols and baobab trees are in Africa. Including the two is a mixture of both worlds.


Sacred grounds

However, how do we know enslaved people are buried in Van Cortlandt Park?

“There has been a lot of talk about that for many years,” said Ehrlich. “In 2019, there was a ground penetrating radar study done in this location underground, and it looked like what resemble coffins.”

But also, documents help triangulate the area. There were land deeds and wills.

First, going back to the 1600s, Van Cortlandt was one of the wealthiest families and the most influential political dynasties of Dutch origins. Its members became notable in business and politics.

In 1912, the park was named after its longtime residents, who lived in the Van Cortlandt House — now a museum near Broadway.

But its land was also home to generations of enslaved people. And while working on the New York and Northern Railroad, workers unearthed skeletal remains in the 1870s.

“New York City Parks did a really beautiful thing in that they wanted to make sure to start to recognize burial grounds,” Ehrlich said.

“There were a whole bunch of assets in the park system that were renamed in the wake of Black Lives Matter.”


The baobab tree

The baobab tree is remarkable due to its size of around 75 feet and its life span. It continues to grow. Once it is cut, it grows back by itself. A mature tree can be 200 years old.

Investors are willing to spend an arm and a leg for the sacred baobab; prices can be between $1,000 to $2,500, depending on the state of the tree.

There are various types of baobab trees. In fact, mature baobab creates its own ecosystem. Monkeys and warthogs devour their fruits and seedpods. Birds stitch their nests in their branches.

There are a lot of beliefs — one is that each tree has a living soul that can be interpreted as an angel. And sometimes, when messages or letters are written, people stick it inside of the tree. Eventually, the message will go missing.

“The spiritual being, it’s either holding on to your message or the strength of the baobab is still attached whatever you put inside, and you’re gonna gain that strength,” he said.

“These are all beliefs that work for those who believe in it — regardless of your belief, it might be working for you or not, like people who take aspirin.

“(For some) it doesn’t do anything for them. Somebody takes aspirin and it works for them.”

tree of life, Tijay Mohammad, Africa, baobab tree, Ghana, Van Cortlandt Park, Stephanie Ehrlich