Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future. Elie Wiesel
By Savona Bailey-McClain, Executive Director & Chief Curator, West Harlem Art Fund
I started the West Harlem Art Fund over 18 years ago, because family and friends were intimidated by art displayed in museums and galleries. It was my hope that if I could bring art in open, public spaces, then those closest to me including neighbors, would feel good about having art around them in their everyday lives.
But that was not enough. There needed to be a deeper connection – one where viewers could see themselves in the works or at least their hopes or dreams. It did not have to be literal but it needed to be apart of a broader conversation that included all humanity. How else can be bridge divides? We need to see commonalities.
So, I started to walk. NYC requires that temporary public art be site-specific. And I would walk and absorb a site and the people in the neighborhoods and get to know them and their connection to the site. Many thought I was crazy. But by engaging, it helped me to research and then work with an artist in a collaborative partnership so we could present works that were not only beautiful but also thoughtful and sometimes challenging.
Sleeping Beauty was one such work. The artist, Kenjiro Kitade, selected the neighborhood – Jackson Heights, Queens because a large Southeast Asian population lived there. The work was a ceramic sculpture with a metal base that shared this familiar tale but with a nirvana theme.
The artist saw a connection between “Sleeping Beauty” and the “Reclining Buddha”, a powerful image where Buddha is undergoing his last illness before entering nirvana or a rebirth. Kitade wanted to go beyond the Buddhist teaching and address what he called a “Change of Value”. In both stories, the main characters experienced passing from one world into another by “awakening”. Buddha was trying to find the answer to the “Absolute Truth”. One day he became “awakened”, and at the end of his life, he finally reached Nirvana. In Sleeping Beauty, the princess was put to sleep for 100 years and was in a dreamlike state. This separated her from the difficulties and sufferings of real life. But then she awoke and came back to reality. She was lucky enough to fall in love with the prince, her true love and got married. But she was no longer in a dream; she had to face sufferings and difficulties in real life. But by facing, experiencing and overcoming the difficulties of life, one could only walk on the path of “Absolute Truth”.
The work was instantly received with neighbors serving as our eyes to safeguard the installation. The West Harlem Art Fund has presented many public installations around NYC that speak to history, people and place. Story Piles by Iliana Emilia Garcia was presented in 2012 at the Tunnel for the Affordable Art Fair and commemorated the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Flying High, 2013 by Dianne Smith was a paper installation at the Bartow Pell Mansion in the Bronx. For Smith, the butcher paper is a metaphor for the treatment of people in developing countries, particularly those of African descent, as well as consumption in the global market.
Read the entire artzine here