Artists Exhibitions News USA

Summer exhibitions hint at Harlem’s second Renaissance

Three prominent public art installations are opening in the historic African-American neighbourhood

Bentley Meeker’s The ‘H’ in Harlem will hang from the Riverside Drive Viaduct. Rendering: courtesy of the artist, 2014.

Is Harlem the next hotspot for public art in New York? The uptown neighbourhood is due to host three prominent public installations in the coming months. The sculptor and Harlem resident Bentley Meeker has created a 66-foot-wide hanging light sculpture on 125th Street, while an outdoor group show along Broadway is expected to bring work by artists such as Dan Colen and Sarah Braman as far north as 167th Street. Finally, more than 20 artists, including Hank Willis Thomas and Nari Ward, are preparing an exhibition to open in Sugar Hill, a low-income housing project designed by David Adjaye in one of Harlem’s historic districts.

“Art, design and technology are… becoming a part of Harlem’s everyday scene,” says Savona Bailey-McClain of the West Harlem Art Fund. The motivation behind the exhibitions is as much civic as it is aesthetic. Both the 125th Street Business Improvement District, which co-sponsored Meeker’s installation, and the Broadway Mall Association, which is co-organising the five-mile-long group show on Broadway this autumn, are hoping to increase pedestrian traffic in the area. Meeker’s sculpture, The ‘H’ in Harlem (25 June-25 September), will hang from the Riverside Drive Viaduct and is expected to be visible throughout the neighbourhood and, on a clear day, from as far away as New Jersey.

The non-profit developer behind the Sugar Hill building, Broadway Housing Communities, invited the arts organisation No Longer Empty to stage “If you build it” (25 June-10 August) in the building’s vacant apartments before residents arrive, to help introduce the $87m development to the community. The slate grey, slab-shaped building, which includes 124 apartments, has so far received mixed reviews from locals, who fear its design will clash with the surrounding brownstones. “People who are dubious or curious won’t have many opportunities to peek in and see the building,” says Manon Slome, the chief curator of No Longer Empty. “Hopefully they will stay for the art.”

Community participation

Some of the works in the Sugar Hill exhibition respond to the rich history of the neighbourhood, which was once home to cultural figures including the jazz composer Duke Ellington, the sociologist and civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois and the Supreme Court judge Thurgood Marshall. The sculpture Pensive, 2013, by Radcliffe Bailey, for example, presents DuBois in the pose of Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker. But Slome hopes that performances by local poets, musicians and actors will illustrate that the artistic vibrancy of the area did not end with the Harlem Renaissance.

Other works tackle the complex forces that are transforming the neighbourhood today, from real estate development to the New York Police Department. The artist Dread Scott, who takes his name from the African-American slave who unsuccessfully sued for freedom in 1857, collaborated with local teens to create a series of “Wanted” posters that “feature non-violent behaviour for which kids are stopped”, Slome says.

A recent trademark battle between two beer companies over the Sugar Hill name inspired Nari Ward to create Sugar Hill Smiles, 2014. The artist will ask visitors to smile into 2,000 mirrored cans, which will then be sold on site for $10 each. (The proceeds go to a local education organisation.) The work not only refers to the “canned” and uncomfortable cliché of the African-American minstrel character, but also “the desire to use this place as a brand without actually providing jobs”, Slome says.

In an area changing as quickly as Harlem, the “public art is such an asset to a community,” Slome says. “It is an experience that doesn’t alienate—it invites.”

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