A Black Bean Grows Quietly in Washington Square Park

Soaking in the din of skateboards, stoners, shrieks, and street performers, a black turtle bean gradually germinates in the palm of Jemila MacEwan’s hand in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park. Beginning April 12 and ending on the 21st, MacEwan’s performance, “Seed Meditation” (2024), has the artist seated in noble silence from sunrise to sunset for 10 days to witness the bean’s growth in an act of “divine love.”

“Much like the way a pure white light can be broken into a spectrum of colors, I believe that divine love is made up of many components,” writes MacEwan, who they/them pronouns, writes in a supplemental book they’ve been distributing to those who stop by to join in on the meditation. For each day of the performance, the artist dons a handmade outfit of a different solid color from the natural world that they attribute to a separate component of love, embarking on a new spiritual process for every 13-hour day.

To be fair, despite the strict structure of the performance, MacEwan is flexible within reason. On April 12, the first day of the piece, they were rained out of the park; the artist had to toss their clothing and blanket in the dryer until the clouds rolled out to ensure that they wouldn’t fall sick for the remaining nine days. They also have a support team on deck for health and safety management, and over a dozen spare beans on the same germination timeline in case something happens to the original.

Hyperallergic managed to catch up with them about an hour before sunset that first day. The small bean in their hands had already started to swell, its shell becoming glossy and purple-ish from its saturation in a dish of water.

MacEwan explained that they had chosen to meditate on the black turtle bean because it is endemic to the Americas. “They are now grown on every continent except Antarctica, and are responsible for feeding billions of people worldwide,” MacEwan said. “The name ‘black turtle bean’ points to the Indigenous cosmology of this continent as Turtle Island, which recognizes the land on which we stand as an animate living entity. The spirit of that support and the interconnected animacy of our world is what this work is about.”

Anecdotally, their father taught the artist that black turtle beans balance nitrogen levels in soil. The seed, therefore, “is a wonderful emblem of support and care, as they repair soil and provide nourishment.”

As the bean slowly begins to sprout in MacEwan’s open hands, they also expressed that Washington Square Park is the “palm of the hand that gently holds us all.”

To their point, the historic and cultural entropy of the urban landmark translates into a harmonic energy reverberating between anyone and everyone who spends time there. The park itself has undergone many transformations in New York City’s history as well, from a public grave to a military parade ground to an attractive hub for artists and performers. MacEwan also shared that the park became an important reprieve for them while working in Manhattan and recalibrating their life after moving from Australia.

Though MacEwan has been physically and spiritually preparing for this performance for about a year now, they noted in their accompanying book that this meditation comes as the world “has been bearing witness to the abhorrent violations of life, liberty, and freedom of the Palestinian people.”

In response to Hyperallergic’s inquiry about what silence means in moments like this, especially amid calls to speak up and speak out, MacEwan expressed that “silence does not always mean detachment or disengagement.”

“I think what is necessary is that we are able to take time to sincerely commit to engaging in actions — silent or otherwise — that feel necessary and honest,” the artist continued. “Participating in issues of justice and liberation are too important for us to limit the ways we engage with them. Silence can speak of many things. After all, a germinating seed is silent.” 

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