Ellex Swavoni’s New Sculpture ‘What Sonia Said’ Embodies African Heroism And Black Resilience

Ellex Swavoni's new sculpture will be unveiled in Decatur Sept. 12.
Ellex Swavoni's new sculpture will be unveiled in Decatur Sept. 12.
Credit Beacon Hill Black Alliance for Human Rights

A new work of public art by Ellex Swavoni is about to find its home in Decatur, bringing the artist’s vision to a community effort to preserve Black heroes and history. Swavoni’s multidisciplinary art incorporates sculpture, graphic design, ancient spirituality, and even toy design to reflect her view of the world. The new sculpture “What Sonia Said” draws its direct inspiration from the poet and activist Sonia Sanchez’s poemCatch the Fire and was commissioned as part of the “Art For the People” project of the Beacon Hill Black Alliance for Human Rights. Swavoni joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom to share the collective values that informed the sculpture, and where her personal ideals and aesthetic shine through.

Though conceived in Swavoni’s unique style, “What Sonia Said” exists as an expression of a community’s history and hopes for the future. “There were extensive guidelines … that required the artist to speak about the erasure of Black women, to talk about the history of Native Americans in the area of Beacon Hill, talk about Africans, of Black people in general, to talk about heroism, and interweave the history of that space … with what the community is trying to be right now,” said Swavoni. 

“With ‘Sonia Says,’ I’m saying that there is a network that exists throughout culture and time, between indigenous peoples, between persons that are descendants of chattel slavery, the continent of Africa, throughout the diaspora … In the community of Beacon Hill, there’s a history of heroism that exists that has been passed down, and I translate that into an analogy with fire,” said Swavoni.

The poet Sonia Sanchez drew the original connections between fire, ancestral memory, and future empowerment in ‘Catch the Fire,’ setting off sparks in the imagination of the sculptor. Her piece will be accompanied by a QR code, linking to information about the poet and her work. “What Sonia says in her poem ‘Catch The Fire,’ is that ancestors came before us, and made a way for us to do what we’re doing now,” said Swavoni. “It’s like a passing of flame, to go ahead and stand in that same truth and that same power, and do something great for yourself and for the people around you so that the people after you can catch that fire and do something great as well.”

An original musical score also accompanies “What Sonia Said,” and is available on the Beacon Hill Alliance’s website. It’s performed by the New York production team Down To Mars, musicians who mainly perform in Black churches. “In church music culture, there’s a term, ‘Start low, go slow. Rise higher, catch fire…’ Because I am having a fire theme with this work, [I wanted] to align the music with that same idea — make it feel like catching fire,” said Swavoni.

The Beacon Hill Black Alliance for Human Rights has been working for more than three years to remove monuments to Confederate and white supremacist history in Decatur Square. Last June, the 1908 obelisk originally erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy was taken off its pedestal. Swavoni expressed hopes that the space it leaves will create opportunities for artworks in a truer representation of the present and future spirit of the community.

“What Art For the People is doing is beautiful, because public art is for the public,” said Swavoni. “It’s for the people. So having an organization that is keen on making sure that the people who are in the surrounding areas are represented in the art that is displayed in the area, is brilliant, and I’m really glad to be working with them.”

The sculpture will be in Decatur, on the plaza at the Beacon Municipal Center, between the Ebster Recreation Center and the Decatur Police Department at 420 W. Trinity Place. An unveiling of the work, featuring comments by the artist, takes place on September 12 at 1 p.m. More information is available at

WABE brings you the local stories and national news that you value and trust. Please make a gift today.Donate Now