Tag: Nato Thompson

Art Project “Funk, God, Jazz & Medicine” Celebrates Black Heritage in Brooklyn This Weekend

“Funk, God, Jazz & Medicine: Black Radical Brooklyn” (Credit: Todd Heisler/The New York Times)

New York City so knows how to lose — and save, and lose again — its history. Among notable rescues of the past several decades were material remains of the vanished 19th-century African-American village of Weeksville in Brooklyn, snatched from the jaws of 1960s urban renewal. Once in parts of what are now Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights, the village is currently getting fresh and needed attention in an art project organized by the Weeksville Heritage Center and Creative Time called “Funk, God, Jazz & Medicine: Black Radical Brooklyn,which runs Friday through Sunday (October 10-12).

Spread over four sites, the project roughly maps the footprint of the original settlement. More important, it strengthens the memory of a local past that could easily be swallowed up by gentrification.

The village was named for James Weeks, an ex-slave from Virginia who came to New York in 1838. His intention was to create a community of landowning African-Americans at a time when such ownership was a requirement for voting. The plan took hold. By the time of the Civil War, the village had more than 500 residents, two churches, a school, an orphanage, an old-age home, a cemetery and its own newspaper, The Freedman’s Torchlight. Blacks fleeing the draft riots in Manhattan in 1863 sought refuge there and stayed. But after the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge, with a swelling in the general population, Weeksville was gradually absorbed into newer communities that surrounded it.

In 1968, four of the village’s 19th-century wood-frame houses were rediscovered, in derelict shape, on an oddly angled street that had once been a section of Hunterfly Road in Weeksville, and before that, an American Indian trail. The area was scheduled for demolition, but after community pressure, the houses were declared city landmarks. Restored, they are now part of the Heritage Center, which encompasses vegetable and flower gardens and, as of 2013, an education building with an auditorium and classrooms.

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Visual Artist Kara Walker Creates Unforgettable Confection at Domino Refinery in NYC

“A Subtlety” by Kara Walker (Credit: Abe Frajndlich for New York Times)

The smell hits you first: sweet but with an acrid edge, like a thousand burned marshmallows. Then you’re struck by the space, five stories high and more than a football field long. The storage shed of the Domino sugar factory, on the East River in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, was built in 1927 to hold mountains of raw sugar due for whitening. The plant was shuttered a decade ago, yet its crumbling walls still drip with molasses.

But head farther in, and that mess gives way to the pristine: Rising to the rafters and stretching 75 feet from paws to rump is a great sphinx, demure as her Egyptian cousin but glowing from a recent sugar coating. It is a sight so unlikely it seems Photoshopped.

Kara Walker, the sphinx’s creator, appears dwarfed by her almost-finished colossus, an ode to the cane fields’ black labor that she has chosen to make grotesquely white. She has titled it “A Subtlety” — after the intricate sugar sculptures that were centerpieces for medieval feasts — even though it is absurdly unsubtle. Its subtitle is “The Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World.”

The work was commissioned by Creative Time, the group known for its public art projects. “This feels like a Cecil B. DeMille set,” said Nato Thompson, Creative Time’s chief curator, gazing up at the result. From May 10 through July 6, on Fridays through Sundays, the public will get to be its cast of thousands.

Ms. Walker is a proudly tall woman — “5-10,” she tells me, correcting my guess of 5 feet 8. For protection from the room’s floating sugar, the artist wears yellow rubber overalls and a blue bandanna with shamrocks. Her face bears an uncanny likeness to her sphinx.

“I just noticed that her nose and profile are me, for sure,” Ms. Walker said. The “just” is hard to believe: In March, when I first visited studio in Manhattan’s garment district, she talked about enlarging the nostrils on an early draft of the head and, maybe unconsciously, pointed to her own nose as she did so.

Doubters — and there are more than a few — might read the sphinx as being all about inflating Ms. Walker’s ego and status. But it could as easily be a sendup of the genius-artist role foisted on Ms. Walker by others. “To joke about it isn’t necessarily to dismiss it,” she said, “but it is to acknowledge the complete folly of that whole notion.”

In the 20 years since her breakout installation at the Drawing Center in New York, when she was only 24, Ms. Walker has become a towering figure herself, an African-American visual artist who has achieved unparalleled global success. Her cut-paper silhouettes and animations, exhibited and owned by museums across the United States and abroad, harness genteel 19th-century imagery to magnify the dysfunctions bred by slavery.

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