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The seasons are changing here in New York, and city parks are filling with people looking for Vitamin D, migrating birds, and blooms and buds. It seemed like a good moment to take a break from the abundant bad news filling my feeds, hop on my bike, and check out inHarlem, a series of public sculpture installations in four Harlem parks. Unlike many public art installations commissioned by major museums, this one, curated by Harlem’s own Studio Museum, is focused on showcasing work by artists who have strong connections to the area and the city.
The series features work by Kevin Beasley, Simone Leigh, Kori Newkirk, and Rudy Shepherd. Each of the parks hosting work is large enough, and the sculptures are tucked away enough, that it makes for a pleasant sort of scavenger hunt trying to find them, even with the handy map the museum has made to direct you. I was lucky enough to be out on a gorgeous day with lots of others grateful for the good weather, which served as a lovely reminder that people-watching and parks themselves are as much a part of the experience of public art as the sculptures.
My first stop was Kevin Beasley’s “Who’s Afraid to Listen to Red, Black and Green?“ located on a slope in Morningside Park. When I arrived, there were about 30 young men and boys being coached through an exhausting-looking series of athletic drills up and down the hill, while parents, siblings, picnickers, and curious onlookers watched, laughed, and talked among themselves. The sounds of everyone in the park made it hard to get the full effect of the sonic component of the three pieces that make up the installation, each of which Beasley has carefully constructed to bounce and amplify sounds sent into them — he calls them “acoustic mirrors.” But the joyous and full cacophony of the neighborhood seems very much in line with Beasley’s work.
The work is constructed from resin, color, housedresses, and other clothing purchased in the neighborhood, and its title pulls on threads that stretch back across the better part of a century: specifically Kerry James Marshall’s 2012 exhibition Who’s Afraid of Red, Black and Green, which was a reference to a series of works by Barnett Newman from the late 1960s titled Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue, which threads back to a play, which tugs back even further to a children’s song. In Marshall’s exhibition, from which Beasley is most directly drawing, Newman’s aesthetic exercise becomes something far more grounded and specific: Primary colors are replaced with the colors of the Pan-African flag and mixed in with other slices of African and African American culture.
Marshall’s exhibition asked questions about identity while challenging audiences to confront perceptions and fears. Beasley’s focus on sonic experience in the verdant green of a park seems particularly apt as Harlem joins the ranks of the gentrified. Among the most consistent sites of cultural difference and quotidian conflict in cities is the soundscape: neighbors scowling over differing ideas of the volume or type of music that’s acceptable to play; people in parks who want quiet, modest picnics versus big groups or families out for a barbecue or party; or shared annoyance about dogs who bark far too much. Loudness and musical taste are by no means racially specific, but there are consistent fault lines in sound that come up again and again — see the enduring knee-jerk reactions that many in the US have when asked if they like rap or country music. For all these reasons, the sounds of Harlem’s parks, the sounds of the differing people who occupy them, and the changes to those sounds over time all seem like great points of focus to carry forward the conversation that Marshall started.
My next stop seemed to also be an homage, or a remix of sorts. On a large steep stairway in St. Nicholas Park, Kori Newkirk’s “Sentra“ offers visitors three portals to pass through as you ascend or descend. It’s hard not to think of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work “The Gates,” but Newkirk’s materials are intentionally far less grand, deliberately drawn from things many urban residents know well: heavy rusted piping and clear plastic flaps like those at the entrance to a cold storage room or that you might find in a car wash. For those familiar with Newkirk’s work, there’s a clear connection here to his beaded curtains and his regular use of found materials. In this case, he seems to be suggesting that these metal and plastic constructions can serve as their own portals and spiritual entry points, evoking sites of transition and transcendence similar to the torii that inspired Christo and Jeanne-Claude.
From there I continued north to Jackie Robinson Park to see Rudy Shepherd’s “Black Rock Negative Energy Absorber.” This was one of my two favorites of the group, particularly because of how well-sited it is. There’s a stand of London plane trees in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden that forms a chapel-like structure as the branches arch up, out, and away from the other trees, where I have often retreated over the years. It forms an open space beneath the canopy, a common natural form that has clearly inspired centuries of architects of spiritual spaces: flying buttresses soaring high into the air, shafts of light piercing through slivered openings, multicolored stained glass where leaves and sky interact in the spaces between. In Jackie Robinson Park, Shepherd placed his sculpture in the apse of a massive cathedral of plane trees lined with benches and alcoves.
Composed of colored concrete in an earthen and organic shape, the piece rises well above any person who walks near it, echoing the reach and manifold nature of the trees around it and also seeming distinctly altar-like. Someone had placed an offering of small sticks inside when I visited, lending the piece even more of a sense of spiritual energy. It evoked some of the altars discussed in one of my favorite art books, Kay Turner’s Beautiful Necessity: The Art and Meaning of Women’s Altars, as well as the Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove in Nigeria. The work is at once quiet, playful, monumental, idiosyncratic, devout, and mysterious.
For my last stop, I wound down and east to Marcus Garvey Park, where I found Simone Leigh’s “A particularly elaborate imba yokubikira, or kitchen house, stands locked up while its owners live in diaspora,” my other favorite. The piece is humorous and poignant, beautiful and unexpected. As I walked up to it, near the edge of a wide, sunny lawn on the east side of the park, one of the first things it brought to mind was Camara Laye’s excellent novel The Radiance of the King, which follows its main character on a seemingly endless journey to find the ruler of a fictional nation on the coast of Africa. Like Laye’s work, Leigh’s plays with questions of authenticity, connection, and searching. But hers is a reversal of Laye’s script in many ways: Rather than a foolish white protagonist entering the African context, Leigh’s protagonists would seem to be Black Africans (and their descendants) wrenched, through violence and slavery, into a white world, with a focus on both the imagined and real lives and culture they left behind.
These solid concrete kitchen houses have no doorways, no entry points, no historic reenactors guiding visitors into or around them. And through exposure to the park and the elements, they have grown weathered, increasing the sense that their owners are no longer present. Another thing this work brought to mind was Henry Louis Gates’s television program Finding Your Roots, in which those with African heritage often find themselves cut off from any specific information about a history leading back to Africa because slaves’ pasts were intentionally obscured by their captors and prolonged trauma. Frequently the show will pivot to best guesses about a person’s country of ancestry based on current DNA sampling technology, combined with best guesses about the worlds left behind and what they might be like today.
In this series, the Studio Museum has done a great job of selecting artists who have produced layered work that seems like it will easily stand up to the repeated visits that residents of the neighborhood will inevitably pay while spending time in the parks. There’s also a playfulness to each that rewards curious onlookers who decide to give the works a closer inspection, whether for the first time or the 20th. And because you actually have to venture into the parks to experience them, rather than simply passing by outside, they also demand an interaction with Harlem itself — both its history and its present.
inHarlem continues in four Harlem parks through July 25.