Art

At Home in Harlem

The inaugural exhibition at the new Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute is concerned with demonstrating how one comes to belong to a place.

Amalia Mesa-Bains. Emblems of the Decade: Borders. Mixed media installation. 2015. Detail by Mario Carron
Amalia Mesa-Bains, detail of “Emblems of the Decade: Borders” (2015), mixed-media installation, 20 x 5 x 8 feet (photo by Mario Carrion)

Home, Memory, and Future, the inaugural exhibition at the new, permanent location of the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute (CCCADI) in East Harlem, is faithful to its name. This show, at its core, is concerned with demonstrating how one comes to belong to a place: time, of course, and experience, but also by being anchored through historical records, stories, photographs, and other forms of visual culture.

But really it’s not a place, it’s this place — Harlem, where the longtime documentary photographers Dawoud Bey, Chester Higgins Jr., and Hiram Maristany have plied their practices, generating the images we see here, which in the logic of the exhibition become collective memories drawing the neighborhood circle tighter. One of the curators, Lowery Stokes Sims — who worked on the exhibition with Yasmin Ramirez, CCCADI founder Marta Moreno Vega, and Regina Bultrón Bengoa — explained the decision to place the work of these photographers on the ground floor in order to “capture a sense of those neighborhoods that are fast disappearing because of gentrification and change.” Indeed, according to the press release, the show “explores the concept of home in the age of gentrification and displacement.” But it’s not an age so much as a moment that’s nearing a crisis point in New York City, a place with a long history of existing in and sustaining the tension between the roaming, speculative powers of wealth and the rootedness of cultural identity.

Hiram Maristany, "Funeral Procession of Julio Roldan" (1970) (all photos by Rex Desrosiers unless otherwise noted)
Hiram Maristany, “Funeral Procession of Julio Roldan” (1970), photograph mounted on board (photo by Rex Desrosier)
Installation view of two photographs by Chester Higgins jr.
Installation view of two photographs by Chester Higgins Jr. in Home, Memory, and Future at the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute (photo by Rex Desrosier)

Bey, Higgins Jr., and Maristany have been documenting east and west Harlem since the 1960s and ’70s, so they establish the grounds for seeing the district as a historical continuum. In Higgins Jr.’s portrait “Minister Louis Farrakhan of the National [sic] of Islam, Mosque #6 located at 116th Street and Lenox Avenue” (1972), I see a young Farrakhan, who doesn’t look very different from the man I used to see on television in the ’80s and ’90s, and who I’d come to think of as representative of a religious arm of the black liberation struggle that has long been palpable in this place.

Looking at the work of Maristany — who Sims says was once considered the official photographer for the Young Lords — I’m struck by how much the cars, street signage, and clothing have changed, but how the buildings have stayed the same: those five- and six-story boxes with windows and metal fire escapes crisscrossing their fronts like some safety truss. His photography is evocative and lovely and only suffers from a lack of adequate lighting. Still, in Maristany’s “Night Field” (1965), which depicts a long landscape view from a lofty angle, I see chalk diagrams drawn on the asphalt, for hopscotch and other games, reminding me that for many people growing up in the inner city, life really is in the streets. Bey gives these streets personality by creating portraits of subjects who face the viewer, and thus claim their space, in effect saying that we cannot look without also being considered by them. This means that we cannot enter their territory with cavalier impunity.

Pepón Osorio, “A mis adorables hijas” (1990) mixed media, 36 x 78 x 22 in inches. Courtesy of the Artist.
Pepón Osorio, “A mis adorables hijas” (1990), mixed media, 36 x 78 x 22 in inches (image courtesy of the artist)

The curators’ choices for the photography-filled first floor are excellent. However, on the second floor, which features several mixed-media installations, much of the work is overly sentimental. For example, there is Pepón Osorio’s “A mis adorables hijas” (1990), consisting of a purple couch lifted to about my chest height, on which is written what Sims described as a kind of suicide note. The script is in Spanish, and small figurines and locks of hair are attached to the couch. The object is suffused with regret, and while it’s meaningful, it feels like it belongs in a slightly off-beat soap opera.

The other works on the floor are hit and miss as well — among them Nicole Awai’s “Flashback – Magnetic Force” (2011), which is too scattershot to give me any emotional or intellectual purchase. However, Amalia Mesa-Bains’s “Emblems of the Decade: Borders” (2015) is the kind of installation I want to spend time with: it’s detailed and sundry and gives off the feeling of someone’s actually lived-in space crossed with a sort of reliquary. It consists of furniture, framed family photos, and knickknacks against a wall that morphs from dark, funereal gray to bright, lively red. It says something about the cycle of life.

Amalia Mesa-Bains “Emblems of the Decade: Borders” (2015) Mixed media installation Detail. 20’ x 5’ x 8.’ Galería de la Raza. Courtesy of the artist.
Amalia Mesa-Bains, detail of “Emblems of the Decade: Borders” (2015), mixed-media installation, 20 x 5 x 8 feet (Galería de la Raza, courtesy the artist)
Nicole Awai Flashback - Magnetic Force, 2011, resin, cotton linter fiber, wire form, nail polish, 88 x 36 x 90 inches.
Nicole Awai, “Flashback – Magnetic Force” (2011), resin, cotton linter fiber, wire form, nail polish, 88 x 36 x 90 inches

One of the curators’ wisest decisions was to devise the show in three parts. Produced by Bengoa, the third element is an artist-designed virtual tour of El Barrio/East Harlem that uses augmented reality — the “Blippar” app on one’s smart phone — to display historical records and other information linked to certain locations in the neighborhood. Titled Mi Querido Barrio (My Beloved Community), this tour — which, in full disclosure, I haven’t yet taken — represents CCCADI seeking to establish itself in Harlem by showing how people from the African diaspora have always been integral to the life of this place. With Home, Memory, and Future, the institute is also demonstrating a historical lineage, so that visitors better understand their own connections to work that has been generated by this neighborhood. The show says that those in this place are already home, and the hope is that they will continue to be in the future.

Enhanced interaction via the Blippar app for the Mi Querido Barrio program (photo by Mario Carrion)
The Mi Querido Barrio (My Beloved Community) augmented reality tour in action

Home, Memory, and Future continues at the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute (120 E 125th Street, East Harlem, Manhattan) through March 2017.

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