BRIC's most ambitious exhibition to date, not only does the BRIC Biennial: Volume II, Bed-Stuy/Crown Heights Edition feature the work of over 40 visual artists, it is also spread out over four venues local to the neigborhoods spotlighted. Here, we take a closer look at the work presented at Weeksville Heritage Center, Brooklyn's largest African-American cultural institution and a multidisciplinary museum dedicated to preserving the history of the 19th century African American community of Weeksville, Brooklyn - one of America’s first free black communities. Located at 158 Buffalo Avenue in Crown Heights, the subtitle and theme of the portion of the exhibition at Weeksville is The Lived City, and it is on view through January 6, 2017.
Artists presented at Weeksville include: Chloë Bass, The Black Lunch Table, Adrian Coleman, Adama Delphine Fawundu, Russell Frederick, Duron Jackson, Olalekan Jeyifous, Mckendree Ke, Stan Squirewell, and sol’sax.
In taking up the theme of The Lived City, the artists exhibiting at Weeksville address the affective infrastructures that shape the negotiations of public space from celebrations of black life and community, to reflections on violence, or imagining dystopian futures. In doing so, these works blur the boundaries between the white cube of the gallery and the thriving culture of Brooklyn’s streets, and provide a nuanced insights into what it means to share this city and streets with each other.
Weeksville is then a very fitting site for this segment of the exhibition, representing one of the oldest free African-American communities in the United States, pre-dating the Civil War, and serving as a center for social justice and abolition organizing in the 19th century. Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights later became predominantly African-American neighborhoods with a rich cultural legacy from the jazz era of the 1930s to the thriving hip hop and underground performing arts scene of today. The exhibit at Weeksville is reflection of this history through contemporary artists who live and work in the neighborhood.
Street photographer Russell Frederick’s haunting black-and-white portraits of the residents of Bed-Stuy began as a personal project almost twenty years ago to capture quotidian life in his community. He documents the joys and moments of shared solitude as a visual challenge against the aesthetic representations of African-American suffering and narratives of violence that dominate media portrayals of the neighborhood. His subjects often meet the camera’s gaze directly, challenging any attempt to objectify them, even as they convey a sense of calm self-possession.
Adame Delphine Fawundu’s photographs share with Frederick’s the desire to document the everyday. However, her project Tivoli: A Place We Call Home also makes explicit the problems of gentrification and displacement that face the Crown Heights. Against Frederick’s classic images of street life, Fawundu’s portraits of residents of the Tivoli Towers apartment building represent individuals in the cross-hairs of institutional neglect and rapid real-estate development. Her chronicle portrays the lived political-economic realities in the neighborhood by putting a human face on the abstract concepts like “gentrification” and “development.”In Baseera Khan’s video The Window, the artist narrates the ways in which her Crown Heights neighborhood has been “under occupation,” and undergone drastic changes in the last few years. Khan’s long takes of the view outside her window, intercut with still images of her studio, refuse easy political generalizations or claims to “represent” a broader community. As a relatively recent arrival, her voiceover becomes a meditation on Khan’s complicity and fraught task of building a home as a working artist at the cutting edge of processes of gentrification and capitalist exploitation.
In contrast to these up-close documents of life in the neighborhood, McKendree Key’s Peripheral Metropolis gives us interviews with people who live within 60 miles of New York City, but have never made it there. As a New Yorker, Key’s projects often address the social and economic divisions of lived space. In this video, her interviewees share what they imagine life would be like in the city but underlying these poignant, sometimes funny, descriptions are recurring fears of being lost or overwhelmed; a sentiment that throws the reality of life in the city into stark relief.
Duron Jackson’s installation, Witness, works with the concept of memorialization and the lived histories of objects. It consists of hundreds of pairs of sneakers donated to him by young men of color who have been racially profiled by the police. The sheer quantity of the sneakers marks the enormity of the problem, while their delicate suspension from the ceiling also references the sight of sneakers hanging over telephone wires, evoking memories of childhood nostalgia even as they mark the precarity of life for young African-Americans in the age of police brutality. The power struggle between the police and African American is switched in Jackson’s video installation Haze. Jackson forces the audience to walk down a narrow hallway to watch the found security footage, which heightens the audience’s relationship to the scene.
Stan Squirewell draws on West African indigenous mythology to create figural representations of black bodies that transcend contemporary realities. In his Anomoloy Plates series of photographs, Squirewell draws on the imagery of mythical water deities from heterodox spiritual traditions to display a protean figure, caught between states of emergence and immersion into the liquid that envelops them in stark black and white.
Olalekan Jeyifous and Adrian Coleman both have backgrounds in design and architecture; training they deploy in their representations of the built environments of Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights. Coleman’s large-scale watercolors trouble the complex boundaries of public and private space, of real and imagined, through their exploration of derelict lots, buildings in the process of construction, and imagined interior spaces. Jeyifous’ dystopian environments create futuristic pairings of the shanty-town and the high-rise, mapping concrete and glass onto ruin and neglect.
Conceptual artist Chloë Bass works across performance, video, and installation to investigate the everyday intimacy shared between individuals in public spaces. Things I’ve seen people do lately, part of the larger project, Book of Everyday Instruction, attends to the voyeuristic relationships that emerge in the process of sharing space. Bass’s installation combines video, found objects, and framed prints to stage whimsical, personal takes on scenes from urban life that address forms of urban surveillance and data capture. Her blank white prints are framed by detailed descriptions, like “the guy biking down Lewis Avenue balancing a 6-foot folding table,” which imbue quotidian scenes with a sense of the strange and absurd, while the absence of photographic documentation plays with the boundaries between fiction and personal narrative. Juxtaposed with video footage from surveillance cameras, the installation highlights voyeurism as a hallmark of cities at least since the emergence of the figure of the flâneur as an urban archetype of the anonymous, leisurely observer of city life.
sol’sax repurposes a range of ordinary found objects such as tin cans, basketballs, and blue jeans, in order to reimagine the history and culture of African Americans. His practice draws on an Afro-diasporic tradition of assemblage in an effort to expose and explore the complex connections between African-American history and West African culture.
A Special Project in conjuction with the BRIC Biennial, The Black Lunch Table series is a collaboration between social practice artists Heather Hart and Jina Valentine. They describe it as the “production of a discursive site;” a space to hold conversations about the intersection of aesthetics and politics while working as artists of color within the contemporary art world. The project has grown from early conversations staged as small groups to an ongoing archive that addresses the silences within the canon of art history and criticism about the lived experience and production of artists from the African diaspora. For the Biennial, two separate sessions will be held along with a Wikipedia Edit-a-thon, the first as a conversation between artists, art educators and researchers from the African diaspora to provide a space to address their community directly, and then a conversation about the #blacklivesmatter movement which is open to the public. Their Wikipedia Edit-a-thon follows the task of documenting black artists and their legacies as central contributions to the public history of art.
LEARN MORE ABOUT THE LIVED CITY AT WEEKSVILLE >>
LEARN MORE ABOUT THE BRIC BIENNIAL: VOLUME II EXHIBITION >>
Text by Elizabeth Ferrer, photos by Jason Wyche