Beneath the pews of St. Paul’s Chapel, in Postcrypt Art Gallery, which rests in the center of the chapel’s basement, an intellectual and purposeful exhibition is exploring identity and diaspora.
“Bridging Boundaries: Redefining Diaspora” is a collaborative venture by the African Students Association, Postcrypt Art Gallery, and Art in FLUX Harlem. The expo, which runs through March 7, not only features art in various common visual art media, but also incorporates spoken word, musical performances, panel discussions, and other forms of interactive expression.
The space is lit in warm, yellow light, and an arrangement of work hangs from all four walls. What is immediately distinct about the exhibit is its abandonment of cohesion. Works that sit adjacent to one another are not necessarily there to complement one another.
Like the pieces it features, the layout of the room evokes a sense of dispersion. From a central concept, each work branches out in its own direction, landing on one various aspect of cultural exploration or another. At times we see imagery connecting one piece of work to another, but it is clear these pieces speak for themselves. The exhibit is collaborative, but the pieces stand alone.
While the space is reminiscent of representational collage, the arrangement of the gallery is thoughtful, exhibiting diaspora through both generation, space, and culture. Some pieces, such as “Guardians of the Future” by Carl Karni-Bain and “Ascendants” by Oluwatoyin Tella, offer an introspective take on the cultural heritage and desires of black communities. There are also pieces that provide distinct commentary on the place and perception of black men compared to that of white men, such as Bayeté Ross Smith’s “Our Kind” from his “Of People” series.
A compass theme seems to recur within many works in the expo. Arrows direct the viewer, yet there is the sense that it is not so linear. The persistent imagery of cardinal directions that are at the same time directionless resonates with a theme of personal and ethnic diaspora.
The mix of media within the exhibit is intriguing. Experimentation with paint and print on fabric—seen in “Electra” by Beatrice Lebreton and “Ripped From Your Grandmothers’ Hands” by Dakota Ceneta—and with beading on canvas and textured bases—seen in “Memoria Kongo” by Leonardo Benzan and “Welcome Mat” by Ibou Ndoye—allows for organic themes, even within the realm of abstraction.
The image I have yet to shake is that of Naima Green’s photograph, titled “Nedjra.” In it, we see a young black woman looking straight into the camera. In the background are cows, grazing leisurely in the bright morning hour. The woman looks at the viewer with a tired nature she seems to be accustomed to. It is a beautiful and unique representation of integration. This is all-American, void of forced placement in patriotic imagery. Up at dawn for work and wrapped in a sweater and a work vest, she acknowledges us, and we see that cowboys are not rugged white men in hats. They may not even be men at all.