On September 9th, an art show opened in Casa Experimental, a gallery nestled in the back of the cooperatively owned Bushwick art/music space Silent Barn. Organized by curators Cynthia Tobar and Aldo Soligno, as well as non-profit More Art, one of the many exciting points of the Beyond Bricks and Mortar project is the documentary interviews with seniors from the Hope Gardens Senior Center. In Spanish, with English subtitles, the interviews explore seniors’ lives and stories, often of raising their kids in the country they immigrated to, navigating the challenges to find the social ties and support they needed, and their experiences with NYC housing. The title of the show, Beyond Bricks and Mortar: Stories of Community and Resilience, points to the aspects of fighting gentrification through strengthening community and spreading education about our individual and collective participation for housing justice. Beyond the bricks and mortar struggle of resisting unjust development and housing practices by landlords and building owners, how do we resist?
Curator Cynthia Tobar hopes to foster intergenerational ties that strengthen the community by conducting art/tech/skills workshops for youth, such as training high schoolers to conduct just these types of interviews. In this case, youth themselves learn directly from older generations and become those who document and disperse the stories and experiences of that generation. In the exhibit, a smartphone-scannable QR code brings visitors to a high schooler’s own interview of a senior about their life, and their urban, housing and immigration experiences.
Creating a specifically bilingual space that gives back to the local community, and focusing on issues relevant to them, are the goals of Casa Experimental in fact. At the opening, I heard Stephanie, who works with kids through Mi Casa No Es Su Casa to create art such as the DERECHO A TECHO illuminated protest sign, explain her work and the space’s goals in Spanish, and the night truly brought in a bilingual crowd. Other groups such as Educated Little Monsters are affiliated with the space as well, and are a space for local (often high-school age) artistic talent and education. I spoke with Zaria Poem, a founder of neighboring Silent Barn space Disclaimer Gallery, who explained that community arts groups like Mi Casa and Little Monsters support and seek to exhibit the local young arts community who work in mediums from creative visual art to crafting jewelry, photography, making music, rapping, and dance.
Disclaimer is “a gallery with a permanent disclaimer attached to it,” according to their pro-social justice mission statement, available for viewing right beside the artist statement of their current show. Reflecting the “experimental and non-hierarchical nature of the Silent Barn,” the four majority queer women of color organizers emphasize giving opportunity to artists, especially queer and femme people of color, who may not have exhibited a solo show before. The curator, Poem, one of the Disclaimer founders, explained the dominance and privilege of white (cis, perhaps heterosexual) male creators in the art world; aware of this fact and actively working against it, the gallery team intentionally prioritizes marginalized creators, who are also less likely to have had a solo show previously. On the opening of Beyond Bricks and Mortars, Disclaimer opened photographer Megan Tatem’s Everyday Things exhibit.
In her first solo show, Tatem creates monochromatic portraits of objects, specifically of racialized objects. The still lives show objects associated with racial/cultural identity or racial stereotypes from the American consciousness. Akeem Duncan’s intro to Tatem’s “culturally suggestive” object portraits, such as of a Popeye’s meal or a can of orange soda, describes the pieces as “all familiar folklore; but the stereotypes that are bestowed upon certain ethnicities are not always lighthearted and at times can have dire consequence.” Explaining that stereotypes range from the gravity of “African Americans like chicken” to “the assumption that a majority of the color community are criminal minded ex-convicts who are armed and dangerous and should be shot on sight,” Akeem connects the seemingly benign stereotypes featured in Tatem’s photos to those that manifest in state-sanctioned murder or non-fatal police brutality, that the Black Lives Matter movement has brought to public consciousness in at least the last 3 years.
Disclaimer Gallery and Casa Experimental both seek to show urban social issue-oriented work and engage with the community in anti-oppressive ways. Silent Barn itself is non-hierarchically run, as are both galleries; both galleries are committed to decolonize the demographics of artists who receive opportunities and recognition, whether by Disclaimer prioritizing marginalized creators or casa experimental actively creating bilingual environments and exhibitions. Posters explaining the venue and the galleries’ Safe Space principles abound. Beyond Brick and Mortar addresses gentrification’s impact on displaced seniors, showcases local youth art, and seeks to connect those young artists with the ability to learn about social urban issues. Anti-oppressive art spaces show art dealing with social justice issues, are committed to running themselves communally and justly, attempt to right inequity of opportunity in the art world, and often commit to community engagement and education beyond the gallery space. Disclaimer and Casa Experimental show us all the marks of exciting, anti-oppressive DIY art spaces!