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Geography is a funny thing, especially when you find yourself on the margins. Edges, lines, borders, barriers — they all masquerade as discrete, immutable facts. But in truth, they are all relational and thus changeable, shifting in space and time often right in front of your eyes, whether you see it or not. The inaugural Southeast Queens Biennial questions how we define these margins by presenting the work of local 18 artists, all of who call the eastern edge of New York City’s largest borough home.
Wait, you might ask, where is Southeast Queens? That’s a valid question — it’s not an area often or easily defined — and one that gets at the heart of the biennial’s mission. Titled A Locus of Moving Points, the exhibition is spread across two sites at the end of New York’s J and E Jamaica-bound trains at York College Fine Arts Gallery and the Central Library of Queens Library. Located adjacent to JFK airport, the area is far from the center of the city yet it’s a nexus of international activity — not only because travelers from around the globe are coming and going all the time, but also because the borough is New York’s most diverse, with nearly half of its population foreign-born. By establishing itself off the beaten path at the farthest reaches of public transit, the biennial questions what it means to be on the perceived periphery, and what it looks like from the inside.
All of the participating artists live within a few miles’ radius of the exhibition sites. And a fair share of the work stresses the importance of community, as in Renee Harper’s street photographs of current Queens and Brooklyn residents, on view at the Queens Library. Nearby, Corona Johnson’s images of family and friends from the 1970s capture the borough’s black community and everyday experiences.
But this feel-good, family-album quality is subtly complicated by works by Ify Chiejina and Damali Abrams the Glitter Priestess. Chiejina’s painting “Dying to Dream” — which she made in response to the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri — depicts black men and women in a verdant, Eden-like landscape — an illusive, imagined utopia far from the systematic violence experienced by many minorities. This kind of mythologizing isn’t necessarily escapist, however. Its role is perhaps more medicinal, as evidenced in Abrams’s mixed-media collages in which she draws on the ideal of the divine feminine from her Guyanese heritage, creating black and brown-bodied mermaids adorned with crowns as a way of assuaging the scars of slave trade when people of color were forced across the sea to the Americas.
Organized by five emerging curators through No Longer Empty’s curatorial lab — Anastasia Tuazon, Corrine Gordon, Niama Safia Sandy, Rebecca Pristoop, and Sarah Fritchey — the Queens Library outpost of the show succeeds in offering various representations of black and brownness, reflective of the community it supports. It does, however, veer toward the simplistic if not overly didactic on the curatorial side. But the team’s exhibition at York College takes up some of the same themes of identity and history, and how they contribute to an idea of place, more fully. Abrams’s work appears here, too, this time as a video collage set to snippets from a 1980s workout film geared toward preteens called “Get in Shape Girls,” featuring mostly slender blonde girls. The artist animates other female archetypes that dance across the screen: a Renaissance drawing of Eve from an art history book, a picture of a Cinderella character, an African woman clipped from The Golden Book Picture Atlas of the World. The result comes across as a coming-of-age story of a girl who had to figure out how to be a woman of color in a time with limited ideas of femininity and a place far from her ancestral roots.
But no work in the exhibition underscores the influence of history on our individual and collective worldview more than Sana Musasama’s sculptural installation “Sugar vs. Sap” (1992), an amalgam of ceramic trees growing in a plot of “land” comprised of glass and clay fragments with black hands and faces reaching up from the soil. The title of the work references the little-known 18th-century Maple Sugar Movement started by a group of Quaker abolitionists to reduce sugar consumption — and with it, slave labor — by replacing it with maple syrup. It’s a narrative not included in most history books and even a cursory Google search brings up only a handful of relevant results. In Musasam’s work, the trees and the land function as witnesses to events that could have changed the course of history, a history that has conveniently excluded the stories of people of color.
And that is what’s most interesting about the margins, whether geographical, historical, or social — the people and ideas that exist on the periphery of a city, of culture, of history, have always been there. All it takes is a little shift in perspective to realize the center is just another arbitrary point.
Southeast Queens Biennial’s A Locus of Moving Points continues at York College Fine Arts Gallery (Academic Core, 94-20 Guy R Brewer Boulevard, Jamaica, Queens) and Central Library of Queens Library (89–11 Merrick Boulevard, Jamaica, Queens) through April 21.