The Bronx is in an interesting position at the moment. For several years, new attention to the borough has led to luxury developments along the southern waterfront, while celebrity entrepreneurs have promoted its cultural potential through high-end branding opportunities. Art has played a calculating role in welcoming new money, in turn threatening the immigrant and working-class families who call it home. 

Within this context, the Bronx Museum of the Arts is hosting its fifth biennial, celebrating the “cultural wealth” of its communities and “bringing to light the stories, voices, and visions of artists seeking a more just and equitable world.” Bronx Calling hosts the work of 68 emerging artists from the 2018 and 2019 AIM Fellowship (formerly Artist in the Marketplace), which primes its participants for the business of galleries, fairs, sales, and the like. A wide array of media is displayed compactly across four galleries, addressing themes of displacement, culture shock, and environmental disaster. 

As COVID-19 lays bare the shallow social contract in the United States, the art on view addresses the joint crises of public health and capitalist exploitation. A sculptural installation by Nigerian artist Victoria-Idongesit Udondian is composed of a spectral congregation of handwoven hijabs floating above a bed of flowers. The hijabs are suspended at an angle wherein they seem to gaze directly at the viewer, while Black hands reach up through the soil below. Udondian translates neocolonial violence against African women into a haunting image of resurrection. It’s an absolutely breathtaking piece, and worth the trip on its own. 

Victoria-Idongesit Udondian, “Akaisang” (2020-21) (courtesy the artist and the Bronx Museum of the Arts, photo by Argenis Apolinario)

Many of the most ravishing works make use of space in this way, like Camille Hoffman’s “Current (Remembrance) Events” (2021), in which a vinyl blue wave crashes over a corner staircase. In an opposite corner, conceptual artist Nari Kim left jars full of pickled jalapeños — a staple of Korean cuisine. Daqi Fang’s collage “The Marshes” (2020) depicts a large-scale photo of Chinese reeds from the artist’s own archives of Wuhan’s disappearing wetlands, printed onto small squares of newsprint paper and affixed to the wall. A tiny box fan casts a slight breeze across the delicate composition, producing a somber, artificial sway. 

Across eight wood panels, Jesse Kreuzer’s “Protest and Counter-Protest” (2021) turns a familiar scene into a spectacle of homogenized violence. Heavily armed police officers beat down peaceful protestors, as white men wield Confederate flags above them. Some of the protestors carry American flags, obfuscating their role in the scene. Perpendicular to this piece, large cut-out stars sag to the ground in an installation by Lady K-Fever, transforming the bloody aftermath of Kreuzer’s political violence into entrails of an afterparty. 

Installation view of Bronx Calling: The Fifth AIM Biennial at the Bronx Museum of the Arts (courtesy the Bronx Museum of the Arts, photo by Argenis Apolinario)

Kris Grey’s 2013 video installation, Homage, brings to life the transmasculine artist’s anxieties following top surgery. Grey presents themself fully nude before a live audience, removing small needles on their chest that gradually release blood down their pectorals and along the curves of their vagina. Grey recalls nightmares of post-op sutures coming undone, critiquing society’s constant need to perceive gender despite personal aversions.

Two videos by Venezuelan artist Daniel Greenfield-Campoverde address the contentious legacy of socialism worldwide. In the first, footage from the destruction of the Berlin Wall interweaves with excerpts of a beauty pageant. As supermodels sashay toward the camera, working-class women turn away with tears in their eyes. The second video, The Ruins of eBay (Longues-Sur-Mer) (2018), cuts between chunks of concrete under examination lights and the artist making vain attempts to leap over a fortification from Nazi Germany. Hinting at the commodification of political dissent, the videos together evoke a failure to achieve the kinds of freedom symbolized by the “revolutions” of 1989.

Daqi Fang, “The Marshes” (2020) (courtesy the artist and the Bronx Museum of the Arts, photo by Argenis Apolinario)

In 2011, former Hyperallergic staff writer Allison Meier examined the inaugural Bronx Calling, concluding that the selection of artists showed promise, but the presentation left a “drifting feeling” akin to an art fair. Over a decade later, the curation seems much sharper, but the overall effect lingers. With gentrification still looming, the Bronx’s neighborhood art institution continues to focus its programming on individual identity, eliding the ever-divergent interests of the art market and local communities. 

Bronx Calling: The Fifth AIM Biennial continues at the Bronx Museum of the Arts (1040 Grand Concourse) through March 20. The exhibition was curated by Ian Cofre and Eva Mayhabal Davis.

Billie Anania is an editor, critic, and journalist in New York City whose work focuses on political economy in the cultural industries and the history of art in global liberation movements.