Harlem Perspectives: Decolonizing the Gaze & Refiguring the Localby Nico Wheadon
FACTION ART PROJECTS | APRIL 20 – MAY 13, 2018
For the last century, Harlem has served as a container for popularized hopes, myths, and projections surrounding Black and Latinx cultural production. For many, Harlem holds the nostalgia of an era long gone, one colored by the writings of Baldwin, the riffs of Ellington, and the swag of Baker. For others, Harlem has come to embody a contemporaneity that is built atop yet distinct from its complex history. With the launch of their second exhibition Harlem Perspectives, FACTION Art Projects—a Bristol-based arts collective who recently opened Gallery 8 in the historic Strivers’ Row district of Harlem—chimed in as a new, local voice invested in reinforcing the perception of Harlem as a hotbed for social innovation and cultural entrepreneurship.
The exhibition brings together ten multidisciplinary artists who live and work above 110th street, positioning them as local talent. Despite sharing the geographical context of Harlem, “Jamaica-born Renee Cox, Colombian-American artist Lina Puerta, French painter Elizabeth Colomba, Dominican Republic-born Pepe Coronado, Chilean American artist Virginia Inés Vergara, Moscow-born Leeza Meksin, Guatemalan photographer Jaime Permuth, African American artist Stan Squirewell, and New York born Elaine Reichek and David Shrobe,”1 challenge viewers to confront their own stance and subjectivity in relation to global issues and identities.
I was first struck by the exhibition’s context—an international group of primarily POC artists grouped by British gallerists seeking to engage “an interesting and eclectic group of people”2¾in the very birthplace of gentrification in Harlem. For this reason, instead of tracing and deliberating upon the historically fine line between cultural celebration, fetishization, and commercialization, I chose to focus my observations on how these prolific artists decolonize the art historical gaze by interrupting traditional readings and viewing paradigms in their works.
David Shrobe carries the spirit of the exhibition dutifully, as a local artist whose highly-accessible works are constructed in-part from found objects sourced within a few block radius of Gallery 8. In an interview with Black Art In America, Shrobe discusses the rich history of materials, and poetically defines abstraction as a process wherein the artist invites materials to tell their own story.3 In so doing, Shrobe frees our collective imagination from the trappings of social object memory, uplifting the quotidian and inviting viewers with differing levels of art literacy to see themselves and their neighborhood reflected in his works.
Stan Squirewell similarly refigures inherited materials, turning to the relics of ancient civilizations to address lingering existential questions that continue to confound us today—“How did we get here? Why are we here? Where are we going?”4 In his vibrating, mixed-media collages, Squirewell adorns biblical figures—such as Melchizedek, Lilith, and Eve—with fabrics whose patterns hold the symbolic visual systems of our ancestors, reminding us to look to history in imagining a shared future. Lina Puerta also engages memory, abstraction, and the inherent shape of things, allowing, “her artistic process [to be] guided by the physical qualities of [her] materials.”5 This willingness to surrender to the material world—which for Puerta is a robust spectrum of textures and colors, spanning from artificial plants to lace and leather—offers a striking alternative to consumerism, and sheds new insights on how to consider one’s own identity and agency in relation to the things we own.
Renee Cox and Elizabeth Colomba are also concerned with ownership and cultural property, and use photography and painting respectively to test the artworld’s readiness to confront its own privilege and power. Both artists foreground black figures in positions of power within scenes of leisure and decadence, privileges once reserved for upper class whites. In The Signing (2017), Cox stands amidst a sea of fancifully dressed people of color as they bear witness to the signing of a declaration. In Chevalier de St. Georges (2018), Colomba destabilizes the art historical gaze through a complex matrix of unrequited glances—the mirrored reflection of a woman holding an apple looks longingly upon a dapper man, who gazes upon a portrait, whose subject stares straight into the eyes of viewer.
For many in Harlem Perspectives, making art is synonymous with subverting tradition, and I only wish these artistic gestures and political interventions were discussed more thoroughly in relation to the legacy of activism and radical creativity in Harlem. Upon leaving Strivers’ Row, I meandered through a more familiar and visceral experience of our neighborhood, whose tune was louder, grittier, and more expletive than that of the pristine gallery. As someone complicit in the vetting systems that often reinforce the binary constructions of the artworld—art/craft, local/global, emerging/established—I too thirst for the community-driven and site-responsive exhibition model FACTION strives for in this exhibition. And, as a neighbor to both Gallery 8 and these amazing artists, I look forward to working together to shift professional attention and resources towards our neighborhood, and those named and unnamed artists who embrace risk every day by envisioning and actualizing the world we want to inhabit, together.
- Gallery co-Founder Richard Scarry as quoted in BAIA Talks: Harlem Perspectives. https://blackartinamerica.com/index.php/2018/04/24/baia-talks-harlem-perspectives/
NICO WHEADON is director of public programs and community engagement at the Studio Museum in Harlem. She is also an independent writer, photographer, and cultural producer, and is on faculty at Hartford Art School.