The Slave Theaterby Kara L. Rooney
FiveMyles Gallery | June 6–June 20, 2010 (extended through July 4, by appointment only)
[Photographic] Images have an advanced religion; they bury history.
Paradox reigns over the field of photographic visualization. As a medium, this bastard child of the visual arts (at least until the past few decades) has been declared as everything from a purveyor of death (Barthes) to a mechanical reproduction mired in fetishized artifice (Benjamin). Every once in a while, however, photography proves that it still has something to teach. At the FiveMyles exhibition and performance space in Brooklyn, that fact is posited in the form of 12 large-scale, archival inkjet prints. These photographs, equally loaded in history and hue, document the tragic demise of an iconic Bedford-Stuyvesant landmark, the Slave Theater No. 1. Located at 1215 Fulton Street. This once-regal space operated first as a movie house, and later as a center for communal unity and black activism. Over the course of the past decade, the century-old structure, owned and operated since 1980 by Civil Court Judge John L. Phillips, has been the subject of numerous political and legal disputes and now, lacking a historic landmark designation by the city, is poised to be sold to the highest bidder. This constitutes a loss on all fronts: for the local community, for the art world, and for Brooklyn’s cultural history.
In 1980, Judge John Phillips, a 10th degree black belt affectionately known to his peers as the “Kung Fu Judge,” bought the Regal Theater and immediately christened it the “Slave No. 1”. His intention in doing so was to remind the community and the public at large of the historical veracity of slavery, of its severity, and its continued resonance in contemporary society, a feat he achieved through linguistic repetition and in-your-face business tactics. Eighteen years later, the windows of the Slave Theater were boarded up as Judge Phillips, once a wealthy and prosperous property owner, was declared mentally incompetent and his assets seized. (Rumor has it that this tragic turn of events was enacted over a political dispute between Phillips and longstanding district attorney Charles J. Hynes however, no definitive evidence has ever been uncovered to support such allegations.) What followed was a stream of injustices heaped upon the Judge’s estate. Thrust into the hands of inept court-appointed “guardians” who engaged in everything from corporate and real-estate embezzlement to tax evasion and IRS fraud, Phillips’s real-estate empire crumbled leaving the Slave No. 1 and its sister space, the Black Lady Theater, or Slave No. 2, vulnerable to the taking.
Armed with a grant from the Brooklyn Arts Council, Japanese photographer Hiroki Kobayashi, a recent arrival in Crown Heights, was fascinated by the Slave’s story and spent the better part of the past year documenting its crumbling interior. His saturated, color-flecked images capture both the essence of its beauty and of its tragedy, the age-old conflict between culture and progress assiduously played out by way of his digitally resplendent panoramic staging. The majority of Kobayashi’s images document the magnificent but aging murals that line the flaking, gilded walls of the space. In these glorious and haunting juxtapositions, the weight of history comes crashing down. Portraits of Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. hover like astral spirits above abandoned seats as architectural debris, grimy blue tarps, and refuse threaten to engulf them. Meanwhile, vibrantly tattered mural paintings of African landscapes, tribal women, and other Freedom reformers, the likes of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, grace the walls—graphic reminders of a heritage forgotten, now visible only through a layer of dust, grit and time.
Such searing expressions of erasure stalk more explicit examples of the Slave’s rich activist past. In the front lobby, slavery-derived propaganda posters share face-time with the murals, their quotes ranging from statements as pointed as, “The Real Black Man’s Creed: I would rather die with dignity than live without honor as a coward,” to “I don’t know who I am! Lost my name, my tribal language, my homeland.” Elsewhere, elaborate photo collages, both religious and political in nature, butt up against portraits of fighting militants while graphs of the human skeletal and solar systems infer a connection between the space itself and the human lifeworld; the inherent symbiosis of body and soul, physics and metaphysics. Finally, a portrait of Judge Phillips proudly hangs next to a cardboard replica of Obama’s 2009 Presidential Inauguration announcement—an homage to both the conviction of spirit and personal drive possessed by such men.
Yet for all of the turmoil, politicking, and change of hands the Slave has witnessed, one figure does not falter. Caretaker and lifelong friend of Judge Phillips, Clarence Hardy, sits daily vigil in front of the theater’s crumbling facade—a veritable guardian at the gate. Kobayashi captures Hardy’s steadfast fortitude in a 30 by 30 black and white portrait located in the FiveMyles foyer. Here, the Slave’s sole remaining crusader holds an image of Judge Phillips out from his torso. Both men’s gazes are confrontational, direct, betraying an iron will that undeniably declares, “We will not go down without a fight.” Kobayashi’s photographs, quiet in their formal beauty and artful direction, may not possess a distinctly activist agenda, yet they are unquestionably politicized in their ability to orient us towards the truth. These images don’t bury history; thankfully, they uncover it.
ContributorKara L. Rooney
Kara Rooney is a Brooklyn-based artist, writer, and critic working in performance, sculptures and new media installation. She is a Managing Art Editor for the Brooklyn Rail and faculty member at School of Visual Arts, where she teaches Art History and Aesthetics.