Art

Rediscovering the Roots of Black Radical Brooklyn

Otabenga Jones & Associates's "OJBK FM Radio" is broadcast from this 1959 Cadillac Coupe de Ville (all photos by Shulamit Seidler-Feller unless otherwise noted)
Otabenga Jones & Associates’s “OJBK FM Radio” is broadcast from this 1959 Cadillac Coupe de Ville (all photos by Shulamit Seidler-Feller unless otherwise noted)

The energetic, jumbled print design of funkgodjazz&medicine: Black Radical Brooklyn, an exhibition by Creative Time and the Weeksville Heritage Center, strikes a bright, funkedelic chord in the mind’s eye. This is jazz; this is the casting off of the master’s linguistic tools; this is a celebration of black selfhood.

But there’s also a reedy note at play, a melancholic bassoon or a soft-waxing saxophone that accompanies the music. It is the specter of violence and injustice that envelops so much of the African American experience, so that to talk about black self-determination is to talk about hundreds of years during which black life was pre-determined. It’s the senseless life-taking of black people that lays the foundation for black radicalism and political resistance from Birmingham to Ferguson.

In this way, spending a sunny Saturday roaming the ruins of black Brooklyn feels at times more like taking part in a funerary procession than a cultural celebration.

Two years in the making, funkgodjazz&medicine saw Creative Time work with four noted artists and artist groups — Xenobia Bailey, Bradford Young, Simone Leigh, and Otabenga Jones & Associates — to design four site-specific commissions in collaboration with local partners Stuyvesant Mansion, Central Brooklyn Jazz Consortium, Bethel Tabernacle AME Church, and the Boys & Girls High School. Each of the sites embodies one of the four “constituent elements — funk, jazz, God, and medicine,” as Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts writes in a companion essay to the exhibition featured on Creative Time Reports. Rhodes-Pitts foregrounds the show’s focus on the inscription of racial politics on urban space, indicating that these elements “are corner posts framing off a room” and anchoring a community.

The Black Radical Brooklyn experience begins at Hunterfly Road houses, the hub of the Weeksville Heritage Center, a museum dedicated to preserving the history of the 19th-century community of Weeksville. The story starts with James Weeks, a former slave who, upon purchasing his own freedom, bought a plot of land in central Brooklyn; by the 1850s, it had grown into one of the first free, flourishing African American neighborhoods in the country.

Over time, however, Weeksville was subsumed by the rapidly expanding city of Brooklyn. Nearly lost to history, it was only rediscovered in the late 1960s when a local resident and pilot spotted the Hunterfly structures from a prop airplane. The Weeksville site (today comprising parts of Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy) offers a seamless backdrop for an exhibit that explores the myriad ways in which vulnerable black communities continue to be targeted and swept away in the wake of housing discrimination, over-policing, gentrification, and rising rents.

Bradford Young's installation at Bethel Tabernacle African Methodist Episcopal Church
Bradford Young’s installation at Bethel Tabernacle African Methodist Episcopal Church

This rich historical context also introduces time as an important theme, foregrounding the perpetual migration of black American communities: first forced from their homes during the transatlantic slave trade; then settled on plantations where they could be compulsorily sold at any time; and finally compelled to migrate north to escape the peril and poverty of the Jim Crow South. How does a community in constant motion establish roots?

Navigating the streets from Hunterfly to Otabenga Jones’s installation recalls this migratory experience and offers an unmitigated view of the neighborhood. There are colorful murals of figures like Harriett Tubman and Malcolm X proudly decorating the walls of the Boys & Girls High School and gospel music thumping in muffled claps from within the Bearean Baptist Church. One gets the sense of a place rich in existing community assets that make a project like this possible.

Reaching the lot of the Jones collective’s piece, I encounter loud chanting from a line of black men in uniform T-shirts: “By any means necessary! Black power for black people!” These are members of the Black Brotherhood for Self Determination, a local community group whose mission is to create a self-sustaining black community.

But this “radical” demonstration is happening independent of the Jones installation, which explores, among other things, black radicalism. The irony is not lost. On the one hand, the demonstration emphasizes the feeling of disconnectedness that pervades much of the larger Creative Time/Weeksville exhibition; on the other, it serves as a construction between Brooklyn’s black radical past and its present. And it’s ultimately more effective in realizing that connection than the Jones artwork itself, which stages a temporary outdoor radio station in homage to 1960s Bed-Stuy cultural center The East.

Otabenga Jones & Associates, "OJBK FM Radio" (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)
Otabenga Jones & Associates, “OJBK FM Radio” (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

The physical centerpiece of the station, and the installation, is a halved pink Cadillac Coup de Ville with speakers stacked in the trunk and a large seat affixed to the front. Members of the Houston-based Otabenga Jones crew indicate that the pink Caddie is a cultural signifier of success and style in the Bed-Stuy community and the recording industry of the 1960s and ’70s. Two women sit in the Cadillac when I visit, at the center of a makeshift concrete amphitheater, talking about the systematic targeting of black communities by government officials, landlords, and brokers as part of the daylong broadcast.

Shortly thereafter the smooth voice of Dwight Brewster, from a pre-recorded radio program honoring the musical traditions and cultural programming of The East, pours out of the speakers. Founded in 1969, The East was a Bed-Stuy cultural center that promoted Black Nationalism and pan-Africanism through a range of initiatives including a weekly program, Black Experience in Sound, that boasted performances by such artists as Betty Carter, Pharaoh Sanders, and Max Roach.

The show stood for a distinctly African American experience, communicated in the distinctly African American idioms of blues and jazz. These musical traditions tie neatly into the exploration of migration and time, as rootless blues and jazz artists often traveled from one city to the next for gigs in juke joints, speakeasies, and dance halls. With the occasional swell of top-40 rap rising from passing cars in Bed-Stuy, too, the Jones installation seems to anticipate hip-hop music as yet another black idiom of resistance and political speech, from Grand Master Flash to Public Enemy.

The emphasis on music offers one answer to the question of how African American communities have preserved cultural traditions and resisted erasure in spite of ever-narrowing and impermanent physical and social spaces — the “shifting sands,” as Rhodes-Pitts puts it, to which they’ve been relegated. Even though black music, like black property, has time and again been unceremoniously subsumed by the dominant culture.

Bradford Young, "Bynum Cutler"
Bradford Young, “Bynum Cutler”

On the road again to Bethel Tabernacle African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church — the site of cinematographer Bradford Young’s video installation “Bynum Cutler,” inspired by the late playwright Augustus Wilson. A large, battle-worn building comes into view. You must sign a waiver to enter the structure, which was built in 1847 and has long been abandoned My black-stincts kick in here, wondering if this is somehow a replication of the ways in which black people throughout history have been complicit in signing away their livelihoods, whether to medical science (Tuskegee) or to predatory mortgage lenders. I sign.

It is dark and ghostly inside. Ramparts protrude from the ceiling. Entering the sanctuary, three large screens come into focus, projecting black and gray images of the church seen from the outside, intercut with shots of the sanctuary and the Hunterfly houses. The music is haunting, reminiscent of both gospel hymn and ancient tribal chant, an extension of the bending space-time continuum Black Radical Brooklyn achieves.

Nearly every image contains a floating black box obscuring the focal point of the shot, looking like a void or tear in the fabric of time. Scenes of the historic sites butt up against shots of highways and project developments that threaten to swallow up this history. Then iridescent faces appear, of aged black women, presumably church women, replete in white. They are the answer to the question of who maintains and transmits this history.

Exiting the other side of the sanctuary, in the hallowed darkness, a piano sits covered in dust. It whispers of the musical traditions that govern the life of the black church and gave birth to both blues and jazz, in dialogue with Otabenga Jones’s station. Back in the open air, pondering what’s at best an ambitious and at worst an unwieldy art experiment, the feeling of being adrift lingers like a rhetorical question, a somber jazz refrain for an uncertain future.

The piano in Bethel Tabernacle AME Church
The piano in Bethel Tabernacle AME Church

funkgodjazz&medicine: Black Radical Brooklyn continues at various locations in Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy through October 12. See the website for details.

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