Our society often focuses more on representation and showing images of oppressed people as proof we have “progressed,” but the other side of true moving forward for people who live in oppressive societies is self-determination, something that often gets ignored for the more superficial representation only politics. Self-determination is the freedom and ability to control your own life, taking full responsibility in making decisions for yourself that will impact your future. That is something often not celebrated or promoted when it comes to those of us who are not at the top; we are expected to remain dependent on the dominant powers.
The recent month-long exhibition at Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn, set out to highlight ways black communities in Brooklyn have in the past and today are doing actions of self-determination. Funk, God, Jazz and Medicine: Black Radical Brooklyn honored the history of the neighborhood of Weeksville in Brooklyn, founded by James Weeks, who bought land in 1838 in that area in order to receive the right to vote and convinced other black people to do the same. New Weeksville executive director Tia Powell Harris listed a few words that represents the history of Weeksville and the projects: empowerment, equity, sustainability, self empowerment and self actualization. Placing four different art and community projects throughout the neighborhood as well as having different conversations focused on the different aspects of the exhibition, Funk, God, Jazz and Medicine revealed interconnections between self-determination, community, politics, art, spirituality and health that often are disregarded in the individualistic mainstream culture.
The four parts of the title were attributed to each project:
*Funk for Xenobia Bailey‘s project with students from Boys and Girls High School. As an artist and designer, she guided the home interior design project having the students design and create “up-cycled” pieces of furniture in the aesthetic style of Funk for one of Weeksville’s Hunterfly Road homes. The students then created a story for the home and its furniture about a young Afro-diasporic fashion design entrepreneur couple (Afro-Cuban and Afro-British). Inside the home were tables, stools, a chaise longue, a mantel-like alter, decorative flowers, a comforter and a lamp shade all made from recycled materials like cardboard or newspaper. As for how funk applied to this project, Bailey said that Funk was everlasting, that it was the essence in the decomposition that fertilizes soil and creativity to germinate something new. It is the cycle of life energy, the spirit to move on, the imagination.
*God for Bradford Young’s triptych film instillation, Bynum Cutler, which was inside Bethel Tabernacle AME Church. Young, who has won awards for his cinematography for films, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Pariah and Mother of George, once again shows off his skills in this black and white piece, capturing the haunting sacredness of the people, spaces and history of the AME church, even as we sat inside the church in rebuilding mode. The work inspired by playwright August Wilson’s conjure man character, Bynum Cutler, from Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Using a velvet monument set against backdrops like the church and other landmarks of the neighborhood, the film has the kind of mystical resemblance to 2001 Space Odyssey’s black monolith, in which the monument stands for the migration and journey of a people and their spirit through space and time to find themselves and safe spaces to be themselves.
*Jazz for Otabenga Jones and Associates work with the Central Brooklyn Jazz Consortium. The Houston-based “Otabenga Jones & Associates “creates greater cohesion among artists from the African Diaspora by exploring, supporting and uniting their transatlantic experiences,” according to Creative Time. The educational art organization includes members Dawolu Jabari Anderson, Jamal Cyrus, Kenya Evans, and Robert A. Pruitt and others. This project was unique in that it was a radio station placed in the back of a 1959 pink Cadillac inspired by the 1990 album cover To the East, Blackwards by Brooklyn Hip Hop legends X Clan. Paying tribute to the legendary Bed-Stuy institution, The East, the radio station offered programming of older and non-mainstream music, and interviews with local community voices and artists in the middle of a public area for all to hear who passed by it. Given the radio takeover by the likes of Clear Channel and others, as well as personal music players like iPods’ popularity, having a public radio station that features non-mainstream voices and a local communal gathering to listen to what’s happening around the neighborhood, was a rare opportunity. Listen to the radio stations shows here.
*Medicine for artist Simone Leigh’s Free People’s Medical Clinic (FPMC) at Stuyvesant Mansion, paying tribute to “Black Panthers’ community-based healthcare efforts in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s,…Dr. Susan Smith McKinney Steward, the first Black woman doctor in NY State and a Weeksville resident; The United Order of Tents, a secret fraternal order of Black Women nurses founded during the Civil War; and Dr. Josephine English, the first African-American woman to have an OB/GYN practice in the state of New York, delivering all six daughters of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz” (Creative Time), and whose home the clinic was situated inside. Much like the centuries-long dismissal of traditional African diasporic and women healers by Western medicine, these women represent the voices of many other black women involved in the medical and health fields who did not get the attention and respect they deserved. As the daughter of a nursing assistant, I understand the daily hard work in having to care for others, including those who may not appreciate you in return.
The clinic included various holistic services such as yoga, blood pressure tests, afrocentric pilates, creative workshops, spiritual and emotional health exploration, black folk dances. Also, the clinic provided us with a Waiting Room Magazine featuring essays, stories and poems from Alondra Nelson, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts and others. Find out more about the workshops and the healers who ran each of them here and the designers for the nurse costumes here.
Here is the playlist that inspired the projects:
See tomorrow’s post on the notes from two of the conversations I attended.