Siempre en la Calle is the exhibition I never imagined I would see in a New York City gallery — and one that every New Yorker must see. The two-person show of paintings and drawings by Danielle De Jesus and Shellyne Rodriguez brings to life the diverse identities of residents living in poor, working-class communities that are currently among the New York neighborhoods most threatened by gentrification: Bushwick in Brooklyn and Hunts Point and Soundview in the Bronx. This is the first time in the more than 30 years I have lived in this city that I have seen an exhibition of two Nuyorican, Afro Boricua womxn representing their communities so lovingly and openly in an art gallery. Thus, I want to start by remarking on the significance of this exhibition from my personal standpoint as a Puerto Rican scholar/writer identified with the evolving Nuyorican culture. And I especially want to acknowledge that this exhibition is a rarity — and should have never been so — because, as I state in my book Latinx Art: Artists/Markets/Politics, exhibitions like this should be common and unexceptional given the current Latinx demographics in the city.
When many of us think of Puerto Rican art, we often summon artists who work and live on the island, or who have come to the US to study and make art, but we rarely think of artists born and raised in Brooklyn or the Bronx. It is no wonder, then, that both Shellyne Rodriguez and Danielle De Jesus identify Martin Wong, the Chinese-American artist who made visible Nuyorican life in the Lower East Side in his paintings, as a key interlocutor for their practice — because of the huge vacuum that exists within the Nuyorican/Diasporican art tradition, a vacuum produced by a long history of institutional erasure.
The exhibition is called Siempre en la Calle because Shellyne Rodriguez and Danielle De Jesus met in the street through their common activism against gentrification and displacement, and for pro-Puerto Rican causes. This perfect title captures the artists’ intent to create a bold intervention into the dominant whitewashed visual representation of New York City through drawings and paintings that force viewers to really be in “la calle.”
The artists differ in their medium and primary subject matter. Rodriguez’s large-scale drawings focus on people, documenting their stares, dispositions, smiles, dress, and expressions. In “We Took the Kids Outside” (2021), the artist captures a quotidian moment across the city, that of women taking their children to the park, one of the few public spaces that is openly accessible to communities of color. Rodriguez carefully records their clothing and demeanors against a black background as if to focus viewers’ attention on the details of their bodies and selves. These are drawings that emphatically say: look at me, look at us — and look at us carefully. The plural “us” is important here, as Rodriguez’s works in the show seldom portray lone individuals. Even “Grace” (2021), which depicts a young Black basketball player in movement, calls attention to an invisible person, or people, informing his pose.
In contrast, the main feature of De Jesus’s paintings is the urban landscape, especially that of Bushwick. For instance, the focus of the scene in “There is no such thing as East Williamsburg” (2021) is a wall painted with graffiti, while the figures of two white young gentrifiers — signaled by the yoga mat that one of them carries — do not look at the viewer. Even in “The boy on a Scooter” (2021), in which a young Indo-Latinx boy looks intently at the observer, the frame is dominated by an imperious metal fence, while the white figures in the background remain indistinguishable. De Jesus channels the perspective of those displaced by gentrification — and the pain and the anger of Bushwick residents who had homes swept out from under their feet because their leases were never renewed or because they were bought out, out-priced, or intimidated and forced out by the aggressive new developments enveloping the area. “I feel like I am recovering from PTSD,” she told me, as she recalled witnessing her mother’s displacement from the neighborhood where she grew up.
Rodriguez and De Jesus powerfully respond to the continued attacks on their neighborhoods with a series of works that communicate a decolonial urban aesthetics that validates and uplifts elements of everyday urban Latinx life that are usually devalued. De Jesus’s tattooed arm in “Loyalty like this doesn’t exist anymore” (2021) is a good example. The painting brands Bushwick with the popular culture of ink and tattoos — stereotyped in some circles as a symbol of unrefined culture and taste — and with Puerto Rico, pictured in the scab on the subject’s elbow. The work links the fates of Bushwick and Puerto Rico, both subject to real estate speculation, a process as devastating as colonial settlement practices have been around the world. Against this reality, the artist provides a proud and unapologetic image that says, in no uncertain terms: my hood and surrounding culture are valuable and beautiful. I was reminded of Tomas Ybarra Frausto’s term “rasquachismo,” which recognizes how Latinx artists continue to expand dominant aesthetic values whenever they so openly engage with undervalued aspects of Latinx popular and vernacular cultures.
The exhibition’s decolonial aesthetics is perhaps most at play in Rodriguez’s series BX Third World Liberation Mixtape No. 1 (Wretched Freak to the Beat). The drawing is replete with references to the Bronx, to hip hop culture, and to New York history. It is an ode to unity in diversity and resistance. Busy and filled with text, it encourages viewers to draw connections between different languages (including Quechua, Spanish, and Arabic) and communities across race and nationality. It overflows with nods to hip hop culture, as well as literary and historical sources, including text from Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth and the word “uprising” in various languages. I found my attention shifting around the corners of the frame, thinking the artist’s intention may also be to communicate that any — or all — of this is the Bronx: complex, evolving, diverse.
In all, the works in Siempre en la Calle provide a powerful and thoughtful archive of New York City’s urban history while also echoing the history and present of marginalized communities everywhere. Danielle De Jesus and Shellyne Rodriguez use their visual vocabularies to amplify the voices of all communities besieged by speculative capitalism, whether they be in Bushwick, Hunts Point, Soundview, or anywhere else in NYC, and beyond. Most importantly, they inspire a daring call of unity, reminding viewers: aqui estamos y no nos vamos.
Danielle De Jesus and Shellyne Rodriguez: Siempre en la Calle continues at Calderón (106 South Street, Seaport, Manhattan) through December 17.
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