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In 2014, a group of artists named Harlem Art Collective (HART) saw aesthetic potential in an abandoned wall located in a stalled construction site on East 116th Street. After filling out forms and waiting one year to get approval from the NYC Department of Buildings, without any replies, they went ahead and turned it into East Harlem’s newest street art gallery, naming it “Guerrilla Gallery.” “The wall had been dilapidated for the past eight years. We wanted to beautify the neighborhood and have something people could gather around and talk about,” says Harold Baines, a filmmaker and member of the group who coordinated the original mural along with artist Kristy McCarthy. An open-ended project, the gallery invites East Harlem residents and anyone else who’s inclined to post their work and messages on the wall. Since its launch in May, expected and unexpected changes have occurred at the site.
At first, the gallery consisted of a clean blue wall and 10 pieces of art hung by neighbors and passersby. Erik Ramos, who works at a deli next door, was one of the first local artists to add work — sketches of Aztec pyramids, flowers and birds, along with a portrait of famous Mexican actor Cantinflas. Later, others began to add stencils and graffiti. But only four weeks after its launch, local Mexican artist and activist Emilio Zappa covered the entire background of the wall with posters and stencils featuring the faces of the 43 students from the Rural Teacher’s College in Ayotzinapa, Mexico, who were violently “disappeared” by police. These changes were not welcome at first.
“Originally it was just the wood paintings, but surprisingly, a week into it we came back and the wall was completely changed and the whole Ayotzinapa statement with those images were up on the wall. The artist was not from our collective, but is a local activist from the neighborhood. He worked at night and actually took our art off the walls,” Baines said.
Most relatives and parents of the disappeared students are farmers and workers who had to give up their jobs to start a full-time search for their children. Zappa is part of a Latin-American group called “Los Hijos del Maiz” (Sons of the Corn), named in honor of these farmers and formed to advocate for indigenous people’s and immigrants’ rights. Two months after the disappearance, the group began working on a series of large print posters and stencils showing the faces of the students, and posted them on walls in Harlem, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Westchester. And when Zappa walked by Guerrilla Gallery one night, he saw the sign that said “post your art” and had an idea.
“I unscrewed the pieces in the mural, covered the wall with the Ayotzinapa posters and stencils as a background, and put the rest of the pieces back up,” said Zappa on the phone.
“At first we all felt a little betrayed and we didn’t know who was responsible for it,” Baines said. “There was a lot of debate because we were mostly upset at the way he went about doing it. We had invited people to put single pieces of art, and he took our entire creation and turned into his statement, with our stuff on top of it.
And yet, “once I stopped to think about how much of a profound statement it was, and what he went through to make it happen, I realized that he had nailed it,” Baines added.
Today the wall includes 25 paintings and drawings posted over Zappa’s background. The works that have gone up in the meantime also reflect the current political climate, albeit the one in New York. But the parallels are striking. In December, as thousands of protesters marched in NYC after the Eric Garner grand jury decision, Mexicans in New York also rallied, demanding justice for Ayotzinapa’s students. The gallery’s different messages speak to some of the issues affecting East Harlem’s black and Latino residents. For example, the spray-painted words “I can’t breathe” appear alongside the illustration of a face with its mouth covered, while the number 43 over it represents the disappeared students in Mexico. “Although we are politically oriented, we hadn’t thought that someone would use this to make a broader statement about the violence in Mexico. But after a couple of meetings we realized that this is exactly what we wanted. It was a beautiful learning experience and now we know: you ask people to contribute and post, and they will post,” said Baines.
The Guerrilla Gallery is located at E 116th Street between Second and Third Avenues (East Harlem, Manhattan).