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Alexandra Diracles,”Be The Witness” installation view, Houston Street, NYC

Photographic artists who collaborate closely — and as equivalents — with communities to amplify voices and forward political movement are at the forefront of my thoughts right now. As you might now, last month I took part in a discussion about socially-engaged photography practice, at Aperture Gallery, NYC. It would, therefore, be unforgivable for me not to share with you my experience visiting Social in Practice: The Art of Collaboration an innovative exhibition curated by Deborah Willis and Hank Willis Thomas at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, in Midtown Manhattan. It is the best exhibition with this specific focus I have seen to date.

Social in Practice: The Art of Collaboration is teeming with powerful and important works. So many, in fact it makes this review quite a lengthy post. Please bear with me, and if nothing else, use the links herein to dig further into the projects.

The exhibition includes portraiture, documentary photography, audio-visual installations, personal narratives and community initiatives. The first thing that should be said is that the space is not ideal for contemplation. Works are hung throughout the openish-plan offices of the Nathan Cummings Foundation. That said, if you email ahead, you’ll be met out the elevator on the 14th floor by a welcoming staff member. Ultimately, the show will move to NYU in the autumn, so you can take your pick of visitor experience.

Immediately to one’s right upon entry are two small rooms dedicated to desktop presentations of Be The Witness a campaign organized by NYU grads that records the voices of wrongfully convicted exonerees; and Hank Willis Thomas’ Question Bridge an interactive’s trans-media initiative promoting dialogue between black males of all backgrounds in order to redefine black male identity in America. The WiFi was kapput but I was familiar with both these projects previously and know I, we, can experience them from our own home computers. I moved on without asking anyone to reset the router.

Next up was #SANDY, a collection of 12×12 iPhone photos prints captured by photographers in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Organised by Wyatt Gallery and the Foley Gallery #SANDY raised $21,000 for rebuilding efforts in New York City. It was an immediate and effective response, but the engagement here seems to be more with technology, buyers and exceptional trauma rather than with the quieter, ongoing struggles of systemically disadvantaged communities. Laudable but hardly aesthetically or methodologically groundbreaking.

Squished into a corridor were the works of four projects that operate completely embedded within communities.

First, the NY-based Laundromat Project which uses public art classes to reinforce community networks. Everyone should know about their empowering work within NYC. It is a model that needs to be repeated.

Secondly, Sonia Louise Davis ‘ impressive Across 116th Street. Throughout the Summer of 2013, in conjunction with the Laundromat Project’s Works in Progress Art Education Program, Davis gave free art workshops along 116th Str. and hosted sidewalk family portraits sessions with neighbors using her large format view camera.

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© Sonia Louise Davis

116th Street runs the full width of Manhattan, from the Hudson River to the East River. Davis seeks to activate communities’ narratives and histories. She provided all participants enlarged prints. In addition, Davis has asked residents to submit their own images of 116th street to a community-authored “ar(t)chive”.

Third, Lorie Novak‘s photographs. Novak has been working in Mexico for over a decade. She uses art and photography to catalyse communities on a wide-range of issues such as anti-violence against women and anti-GMO food crops. The few prints presented were documentation mainly and didn’t provide a deep or coherent summary of Novak’s very good projects — but that is precisely a tension of socially engaged work when the interaction and not an object-end-product is the main focus. With such projects, if posterity and education is to be served, (photographic) documentation is paramount.

Fourth, was a brief overview of Russell Frederick‘s mentorship of inner-city teenage boys. Frederick is well known for his luscious B&W reverent studies of residents of BedStuy, but here he’s encouraging youngsters to use photography for their own ends and means … with the hope of guiding them away from violence. Frederick has worked with the JustArts Photography program in NYC.

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JustArts Photography students explore professional equipment with Russell Frederick

Off the corridor, in a side room, on a TV screen is Hong-An Truong‘s video Rehearsal For Education. Inspired by Gramsci, Truong recorded quotes texts and passages with high-school kids. These are the soundtrack to a conceptual montage of images. The effect is mantra like, but I couldn’t access the atmosphere of the piece nor figure out its extended use. The worth, I hope, is in the transformative nature of performance and theatre enjoyed by schoolchildren during the making.

On a massive wall at the end of the office space is Jamila Mohamad Hooker‘s Foreign Postcards, a crowdsourced visual rally against xenophobia and Islamophobia. People from around the world have exchanged and posed with the project’s postcards to normalise the sight of the Arabic language. The words? Their own name written in Arabic.

While the presentation of tiled selfies filling an entire long wall is impressive, the emotional connect was much stronger in the first instance among friends and family than I was with me, a detached tertiary audience member. That is why I just submitted a request for a postcard with my own name on it! You can too.

The concept is simple. We are all one humanity. A cute, repeatable and adaptable project.

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Examples from Jamila Mohamad Hooker’s Foreign Postcards

If my reactions don’t seem gushing enough quite yet, don’t worry the best is yet to come. Again, placed down the length of a single corridor (taking us back to the front of the exhibition space) are a number of phenomenal projects, many of which I was not previously familiar.

Noelle Theard‘s Sunset Park Rent Strike Photography Initiative, which can be seen at the Galeria Del Barrio website is an audio and photographic collaboration advocating for improvements in living conditions of three Brooklyn residences. Landlords were trying to raise rents on long term tenants and Theard joined their resistance and provided images of the struggle and encouraged communities to do the same.

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Theard is also founder of FotoKonbit, a non-profit that puts cameras in the hands of Haitians. I’m a long time fan. More here.

Over the years, Lonnie Graham has worked in U.S. African American communities and in Sub-Saharan African communities, and in each case on issues of nourishment, subsistence and prejudice. Graham’s political consciousness is global but the effects of his work are definitively local. Before “food desert” was even a term, his Gardens Project was empowering people to grow their own healthy foods bringing with it all the associated benefits. Less obesity, connection with the land, increased attention among children, reduced obesity. The right to food os the right to dignity.

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Harry in the garden, 2003. © Lonnie Graham

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(A poor) installation shot of Lonnie Graham’s Garden Project. © Pete Brook!

Similarly, Ayasha Guerin project Brownstone Bushwick celebrates the consolidating power of nature in the face of urban blight and/or gentrification. Guerin joined up with the Linden-Bushwick Community Garden to document their activities. Her photographs were accompanied by extended captions from the subjects. Guerin is an academic and a researcher and uses photography within a broader ethnological approach. She celebrates the triumphs of Bushwick’s Afro-Caribbean community in beautifying their neighborhood.

Lara Stein Pardo‘s Mobile Public Studio encourages people to have their portrait taken spontaneously in a public space. I cannot think that the positioning of the surveillance camera floating above the heads of the portrait sitters (standers) was accidental. Pardo is exercising her right to photograph publicly, making the briefest of connections. She’s photographing on the street, but she is not a street photographer as her interactions are longer, not fleeting, involve conversation and mutual understanding.

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© Lara Stein Pardo

Christine Wong Yap‘s Make Things (Happen) is one of the few non-photo-based projects included in the show. Make Things (Happen) begins with a wall loaded with free worksheets. Each encourage the public to participate in an artistic endeavor. Pick them up, take them home, do the exercises, share your results with #mkthngshppn on social media.

At first, I was skeptical toward the invite, but soon realised that most of us need a prompt to think about actually making something. An unfortunate number of adults need prompt in order to fire their imagination. This project is never-ending, loose-ended. Something might come of it, something might not, but with the array of genuinely fun and simple actions proposed, the results are on us, not the artist.

People suffering from HIV/AIDS in Ethiopia face a huge stigma. Eric Gottesman ‘s repeated and long term projects works alongside youth in Ethiopia to make photographs and videos to raise awareness about the epidemic.

Sudden Flowers is a collective of young people in the Shiromeda/Sidist Kilo neighborhood of Addis Ababa. In cahoots, Gottesman and the youngster install their works in their neighborhoods and throughout the city. They’ve been doing this since 1999. Always getting the voices of the kids out into the communities that will either support or ignore them. These pop-up shows aim to make it the former, not the latter.

“Each of our projects is like a ‘lyric’ in larger poetic structure,” says Gottesman who continues the work still.

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Installation shot of Eric Gottesman’s Sudden Flowers

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Citizens of Babile, Ethiopia attend “Abul Thona Baraka,” a mobile photographic installation comprised of photographs and texts produced by children of the Shiromeda neighborhood of Addis Ababa in collaboration with artist Eric Gottesman. The work addressed themes of stigma, disease, and grief as well as dialogue and participation. The installation, in the form of a traditional coffee ceremony, travelled to various Ethiopian cities and town in 2006.

The last space to experience is the boardroom in the centre of the offices (the two corridors described above have run either side of it and you’ve circled it). This is a large open space and rightfully it is dedicated to some of the larger and more arty prints.

Kristina Knipe powerful series of portraits and object studies engaged me deeply with the personal struggles of people who have engaged in self-harm. Knipe’s work is mysterious and — while always being respectful — skirts the edges of the issue. It’s as if she is operating from within a deep understanding of her subjects prior victimhood and hard earned relief in recovery. There’s anonymity sometimes and things inferred. There’s no shame involved, of course, but there is the acknowledgement that in unideal circumstances thing unsaid is sometimes just how it is.

There’s a visceral and coherent atmosphere to the series, which is not something I can usually say wholeheartedly about the flat photographic reproductions; the medium rarely allows it. A triumph.

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Leannet’s Arm Healed © Kristina Knipe

Finally, we encounter Paul T. Owen‘s Todos Somos Ellas (We Are All Them) photographs that bring attention to the violence against women in Mexico. Owen asks his subjects to pose, seemingly defenselessly before the camera, so as to anonymise them and to bring them and us into solidarity with victims of femicide.

“These are not portraits of individuals,” explains Owen, “but symbols who represent the thousands who have died violent deaths because of their gender.”

After a shocking number of news stories of rape in India, after the kidnap of 200+ schoolgirls in Nigeria, after the UC Santa Barbara shooting and the #YesAllWomen campaign, Owen’s work is as timely as ever. But let’s be frank, grave violence inflicted upon women throughout most societies can only be responsibly described as ‘routine’. As Rebecca Solnit so wisely said, recently, violence may not have a race, it may not have a class, but it certainly does have a gender. In the U.S., nearly 1 in 5 women (18.3%) have been victim to rape. I don’t believe that enough reliable, caring and suitably responsive infrastructures and attitudes exist to reduce this figure, yet. This is unacceptable. Owen’s portraits reflect the desperate and trapped circumstances many women find themselves in.

All women? All people. All of our problem and shame upon which to work collectively.

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© Paul Owen

From the inferred silent violence implicit in Owen’s work, we move to photographs that display the best of our awkward and necessary shared being.

The show closes out with 5 or 6 portraits from Richard Renaldi‘s Touching Strangers which has enjoyed widespread acclaim recently. It’s responsible work. Renaldi provides a growing experience for photographer, subject and viewer alike. It gently and endearingly pricks our consciousness by asking us if we’re doing enough to actively see and empathise with the people around us. Touching Strangers is optimistic and it deserves all the plaudits it is currently receiving.

EXHIBITION DETAILS

Social in Practice: The Art of Collaboration is hosted jointly by the Department of Photography & Imaging at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and the The Nathan Cummings Foundation.

It is currently on show at the The Nathan Cummings Foundation, 475 10th Avenue, 14th Floor, New York, NY 10019, through October 2, 2014. Reservations are required and can be made by emailing exhibits@nathancummings.org. After October, the exhibition will be on show at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.