At Leilah Babirye’s Friendliness (friendliness)2022.
Photo: Nicholas Knight, courtesy of Public Art Fund, NY, the artist, Gordon Robichaux, NY, and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London.
There’s a small wooden boat that looks like it’s washed up in Brooklyn Bridge Park, teetering on some rocks at the water’s edge. Approaching it, we realize that it is not an ordinary vessel: its frame resembles an enormous skeleton. Hugh Hayden, the artist who made it, named it Gulf Stream, a reference to two very different nautical paintings of the same name; One by Winslow Homer shows a black man traveling on a boat with a broken mast through choppy waters, and Kerry James Marshalldepicts a group of people boating recreationally on a clear, sunny day. “You can just take it like a boat,” says Hayden. “Or you can look at it through the Gulf Stream story. Did this ship swallow someone? Did it save anyone? Where is the person? Did they escape? they safe?
by Hugh Hayden Gulf Stream2022.
Photo: Nicholas Knight, courtesy of Public Art Fund, NY, the artist and Lisson Gallery
Gulf Stream is part of “black atlantic», an exhibition on the African diaspora that Hayden, with Daniel S. Palmer, curated for the Public Art Fund. It features sculptures by five artists that examine different ways in which black identity and culture have been shaped by the movement of people across the Atlantic. The British sociologist Paul Gilroy first used the term “Black Atlantic” to explain his theory that modern black identity encompasses a fusion of influences from cultures found around the ocean. Hayden has previously made sculptures that explore different facets of American identity, from food and athletics to cultural institutions like schools and churches. A personal exhibition at the Lisson gallerywhich included basketball hoops woven from hair and rattan, was based on cultural references from his upbringing in Texas, and this year he created an installation at Madison Square Park on the tensions and contradictions of the American public education system. He describes his work as being “about the ‘American Dream’ and the difficulty of inhabiting such an alluring place”. This new exhibition expands that inquiry to consider the transnational culture emerging from black migration and cultural exchange between the United States, the Caribbean, and Europe.
The site itself inspired the theme of the exhibition. Public Art Fund and Hayden had been in talks since 2018 to produce a solo show in Brooklyn Bridge Park, but when he visited he decided to create an installation that would engage with water, views of the Statue of Liberty, and the port history of the site. Additionally, he didn’t want to be the only voice on a show about the black diaspora and enlisted four other artists who struggle with similar issues. Brooklyn Bridge Park has been the site of many art installations — Anish Kapoor’s whirlwindby Claudia Weiser totems covered with tilesby Tom Fruit prismatic greenhouses — but “Black Atlantic” is the first to focus on water and the direct and symbolic role played by the port of New York in the black diaspora.
In Brooklyn Bridge Park, the landscape plays hide and seek with the works in the exhibition. Nine-foot-tall charred wooden statues adorned with “jewelry” made from found materials are set against the Manhattan skyline, making the figures look like civic ambassadors. For the artist, Leilah Babiryea Ugandan refugee who now lives and works in Brooklyn, the jewelry and the location of the pieces on the water signify the freedom of expression and the sense of liberation that people can find through the chosen community – themes that recall her own experience seeking asylum from LGBTQ+ persecution in her home country and the welcome she received in New York. Kyan Williamsan artist from Newark, New Jersey pondered who has access to freedom in their weathered sandstone-clay version of the Statue of Liberty which sits atop the dome of the United States Capitol. It is inspired by the abolitionist movements of the Caribbean which fought slavery and colonialism there. Williams envisions their room as a ruin: the cracked and chipped surface serves as a reminder that institutions are not permanent, even as they erect statues that suggest they are. Tau Lewis, a Toronto-based artist from Jamaica, looked far below, to the ocean floor, to create a silent, reflective installation that conveyed a sense of mourning. Inspired by her lifelong fascination with the sea creatures like starfish and sea urchins that live there, and knowledge of the slaves who did not survive the voyage across the Atlantic and now rest with them, she forged six foot wide cast iron circles with symmetry Adinkra Patterns on them which are fixed in the tall grass, surrounded by white flowers.
At Dozie Kanu’s On the elbows2022.
Photo: Nicholas Knight, courtesy of Public Art Fund, NY, the artist, and Project Native Informant, London
The room I ended up spending the most time with was Dozie Kanuit is On the elbows, a surreal cast concrete swoon couch. It sits atop four polished chrome angled rims — custom metal fittings that typically protrude, like a pyramid, about a foot from the hub of a car tire. The rims are a symbol of Houston, Kanu’s hometown, and they are reminiscent of a bench he directed and exhibited at the Lever House five years ago. He then used the angled rims to feel comfortable in what was then the uncomfortable space of the art world. This time he used them to invite someone like him to take a closer look. And that’s what seemed to happen; there was a steady stream of families posing for photos on it, people stopping to investigate the pulsating light totem next to the couch and talking to each other as they explored the room. In a conference organized by the Cooper Union about “Black Atlantic,” Kanu described how he himself negotiates the uncertainty and pressure of being an American and a first-generation artist. His family in Nigeria finds his work strange and confusing, especially since the objects they view as functional, everyday objects are seen as sculptures in the Western world. On the elbows is a symbol of this difference and of the way Kanu, who now lives in Portugal, has managed to find a place for himself wherever he goes – a desire shared by the diaspora and which embodies the spirit of the show.