Art festival will focus on race

An artist participating in the upcoming Art in Odd Places festival, Walis Johnson, will have a mobile installation along 14th Street detailing how people of color faced discrimination in Stuyvesant Town and other areas. (Pictured) Some of the artifacts that go along with stories she’s collected by doing interviews (Photo courtesy of Walis Johnson)

An artist participating in the upcoming Art in Odd Places festival, Walis Johnson, will have a mobile installation along 14th Street detailing how people of color faced discrimination in Stuyvesant Town and other areas. (Pictured) Some of the artifacts that go along with stories she’s collected by doing interviews (Photo courtesy of Walis Johnson)

By Sabina Mollot

There’s no question that race is the most widely covered topic this year in the news, whether the word’s in reference to the upcoming presidential election or race as in skin color, with recent protests stemming from the Black Lives Matter movement. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it’s the theme chosen for artists to run with in what is sure to be a politically charged Art in Odd Places festival.

The annual art show, which features both visual and performance art pieces along the length of 14th Street for a few days, is set to run this year from October 6-9.

This year there will be 34 artists, most of them with works that are performance based. The event was founded by teaching artist Ed Woodham, and this year there are four curators: Elissa Blount-Moorhead, Rylee Eterginoso, Tumelo Mosaka and Ikechukwu Onyewuenyi.

Two of them, Blount-Moorhead and Eterginoso, spoke with Town & Village about what they hoped to see when coming up with this year’s theme.
Blount-Moorhead said, “We left it intentionally vague because we thought it would be interesting for the artists. There’s race as in culture or maybe a race to something.”

The word is used in the latter, literal sense in a couple of installations. In one, artists Nguyen Smith and Geraldo Mercado, will make a long distance run starting in Harlem, making stops where race-related events have occurred. When they reach 14th Street and the East River they will run west to the Hudson River, while performing challenging tasks and engaging in dialogue about race.

Another artist, Nate Hill, will run a fish from one river to the next while singing and making conversation.

In another performance, the artist, Eric Olson, will be covered in what will initially appear to be a bubble sculpture, but it too will be traveling up and down Union Square, to highlight the injustice of Jim Crow. Olson will discuss questions black people would be made to answer before they were allowed to vote, like “How many bubbles are there in a bar of soap?”

Since there’s no way to answer the question, Blount-Moorhead explained, “This is how people were kept out of voting.”

Stuyvesant Town’s early years, when the complex was racially segregated, will be part of the festival as well in one artist’s mobile work.

The artist, Walis Johnson’s, focuses on the so-called Red Line map, a federally drawn map created in the 1930s, which was aimed at denying financial services like mortgages and insurance to people of color and ethnic individuals. Neighborhood populated by people of color were demarcated by red shading on a map and ultimately fell prey to neglect and urban blight. Along with the discriminatory lending practices, real estate agents would use fear tactics to get white people in these areas to sell their homes and move to the suburbs, a practice that came to be known as white flight. The piece focuses on such areas in Brooklyn where Johnson lived most of her life as well as the area of 14th Street and Avenue C in Manhattan. She’s also collaborating with two others on the project: Aimee VonBokel and Murray Cox.

Johnson has interviewed a few current and former Stuy Town residents and will be incorporating their stories, photos and some artifacts into her installation, which will move around along East 14th Street on October 8 and 9 from 2-6 p.m. One woman, when interviewed, recalled the day when her mother told her a friend of the daughter’s, who was black, couldn’t come over the apartment anymore, because she feared getting evicted. Another resident described what it was like growing up in such a “protected” environment.

A piece from the installation “Gun Show” by David Hess (Photo  courtesy of artist)

A piece from the installation “Gun Show” by David Hess (Photo courtesy of artist)

Johnson said the stories there mirrored those in the rest of the city in that “we live in segregated spaces.” She added, “Even though we live in a diverse city, people don’t always live that way in their own community.”

Visual installations include David Hess’ “Gun Show,” which will feature 100 mock assault rifles made from household and industrial materials.

Another is “White Man in My Pocket,” which will be white privilege personified by an army of tiny men that will occupy 14th Street. Artist Kenya Robinson encourages passersby to take this character, who she’s named Dave Fowler, on a journey and document his whereabouts on social media (hashtag #whitemaninmypocket).

As always, the goal of the event, Blount-Moorhead said, is to get people to look up from their smartphones and simply take notice.

“Some of the projects are conversation-based and require participation so we’re hoping for some double takes and triple takes and for people to feel involved in the projects,” Eterginoso said.

For years now, 14th Street has been chosen as the venue due to the fact that’s a crossroads to several neighborhoods. This will be the 12th time the event takes place.

To see which performers and installations are out at any given time, organizers recommend checking the @artinoddplaces Twitter feed or checking updates on the website. Program guides can also be picked up at the 14th Street Y, 344 East 14th Street, west of First Avenue, and Rags a Go-Go at 218 West 14th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues.

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