Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Pink Elephant speaks

By Meredith Deliso

Gentrification in Brooklyn is like a topic you shouldn’t bring up at dinner.

For their next exhibition, the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) confronts the issue right head-on with “The Gentrification of Brooklyn: The Pink Elephant Speaks.”

Through the works of over 20 different artists in nearly as many mediums, the issue is broken down into its conglomerates – real estate development, eminent domain, class issues related to income and housing – through literal and abstract explorations in photography, painting, video, sculpture, poetry and music.

“Now is a good time for this show,” says curator Dexter Wimberly, a Brooklyn native who currently lives in Fort Greene. “Brooklyn is becoming so homogenized. As a curator, it was important to me to make sure this exhibition was not just an African American perspective, or a white perspective or an Asian perspective or a Latino perspective. It was important to try to involve artists that were representative of all these ethnicities.”

(To read about student participation in the exhibition, go here.)

And while most of the artists live in Brooklyn as well, some of them have been forced out of their neighborhoods due to the exact issues the exhibition explores. Alexandria Smith moved out of Bedford-Stuyvesant last summer because of skyrocketing rents, she says. Her painting, “Good Neighbors,” which shows a young woman making or building a fence (it’s intentionally unclear), is not about that, but rather is derived from a line in a Robert Frost poem, “Mending Wall,” which discusses how people use boundaries or walls to avoid the outside world and its problems.

“As I created this painting, I thought about its relevance to Brooklyn and the rise of expensive condos and co-ops springing up in areas of Brooklyn that have long been neglected/ignored by the city,” said Smith. “People have difficulty relating to one another because of differing beliefs which in turn leads to people closing themselves off to one another. In actuality, we are a community and should operate as such.”

Some pieces aren’t necessarily about gentrification, but still speak to it. Marie Roberts has lived in Coney Island her whole life, and Wimberly felt it was important to include her work – sideshow billboard paintings – in the exhibition. “To me, it kind of embodies what Coney Island is about,” says Wimberly.

Included in the exhibition is the piece “Fire Eater,” which previously could be found outside of the Sideshows by the Seashore Theater at Surf Avenue and West 12 Street.“While my fire eater is a modern lady, she stands on the shoulders of a long tradition of performers in Coney Island,” says Roberts.

Not all of the pieces can be found in the downtown Brooklyn space. Gabriel Reese, who does outdoor work in his neighborhood of Crown Heights, created hand-painted billboards that address a different impact of gentrification, from housing to food to demographics, to be placed in different areas of Brooklyn.

“I use humor, subversion and references to popular culture to illustrate the issues,” says Reese, one of whose billboards features, in a fake advertisement, two white women, one wearing a gold “Brooklyn” chain, above the words “Ghetto Fabulous Condos.” “Some of the billboards are down-right offensive, but I would rather offend someone and have them notice these works than be politically correct and no one see them.”

Regardless of which side of the fence who stand on, Wimberly hopes the exhibition sparks a conversation about these timely issues. “It’s about taking what has been historically an uneasy topic, and making people more comfortable with the idea of talking about it,” he says.

Reese, in his way, would agree. “My only goal is to get people to discuss the topic of gentrification. If they go home after seeing one of my pieces and rant about it, I would be very pleased.”

“The Gentrification of Brooklyn: The Pink Elephant Speaks,” opens February 4 at MoCADA (80 Hanson Pl.), with a free reception from 6-9 pm featuring a musical set by author and DJ Rich Burroughs.The exhibition runs until May 16, 2010, with admission $5 for adults, $4 for students (with valid ID) and seniors, and free for children 12 and under. The museum is open Wednesday-Sunday from 11 am -7 pm. Several public events are also planned throughout its run. For more information, call 718-230-0492.

Photos: An outdoor billboard promoting the exhibition, photo by Gabriel Reese and Lauren Besser; Alexandria Smith'a "Good Neigbors", painting (56" by 56" - Oil on Panel), photo credit: Alexandria Smith; Marie Roberts' "The Fire Eater," painting, photo credit: D. James Dee.


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