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Amar Singh for the Cooper Gallery, Harvard University

Harlem is no stranger to the challenges of social turbulence and cultural upheaval. In many ways, these challenges are the very bedrock upon which this neighborhood is built. Harlem was at the center of two defining movements of the twentieth century: it was the fervent crucible of the artistic, literary, and musical renaissance that flourished in the 1920s and 1930s, as well as the beating heart of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Though blessed with one of the most vivid and identifiable cultural and social legacies in modern America, it is also fitting that Harlem currently reflects the anxieties that have contributed to the volatile political landscape of the post-9/11 world. In a time when xenophobia is coming back to the fore, communities are forced to again confront issues of alienation and exclusion. It therefore feels more important than ever to celebrate a Harlem that transcends these boundaries, its soul on display in a series of works that evokes a true sense of nostalgia for Harlem—a Harlem that once was, and one that shall endure.


“I am writing a report, which is also a plea for the recognition of our common humanity,” wrote James Baldwin in “A Report from Occupied Territory,” his 1966 article on the Harlem Six, a group of young African American men who were put on trial in 1965 for the murder of Margit Sugar. However, these young men were not just put on trial, they were tortured, vilified, and incarcerated in truly horrific circumstances. All but one was released after years of torment and wrongful imprisonment. Come Out (2015), the monumental twenty-foot-long painting by artist Glenn Ligon, compels us to remember the Harlem Six, but also suggests the unity that can emerge from disasters that highlight our “common humanity.” Ligon borrows his title from a 1966 piece Come Out by American composer Steve Reich, whose work sheds light on the police brutality that Daniel Hamm, one of the wrongfully accused, faced. “I had to, like, open the bruise up, and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them,” Hamm states in reference to convincing police he had been assaulted in prison by the law enforcement officials. Reich got these recordings of Hamm from Truman J. Nelson, a white civil rights activist who fought tirelessly for the release of the Harlem Six. Nelson even penned a book The Torture of Mothers on the issue. In Ligon’s powerful work, we not only see the civil rights struggle, but also the poet Baldwin, the composer Reich, the historical novelist Nelson, as well as countless others from different creeds and walks of life who stood united behind the Harlem Six, using their art to fight for equality.

Open Wide The Freedom Gates'

76.5 cm x 122 cm 

Mixed media: oil, pastel and graphite on paper 

Open Wide The Freedom Gate (2016) is a kinetic artwork by Howard Tangye that depicts the legendary activist Dorothy Height. Tangye employs the pentimenti technique used by Italian renaissance maters, a visible alteration in a painting that shows the artist’s change of mind during the creation of a work. This often creates the effect of movement on paper - appropriate for the subject of Height, a person who never stopped moving towards achieving the acceptance of women and African Americans. In Harlem, Height joined the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) in 1937, and later integrated all the centers across At the country, uniting white and black women alike. The seeds of Height’s immersive movement were sown in Harlem, and Dawoud Bey’s series “Harlem Redux” (201) highlights the population displacement that is occurring due gentrification. What would Dorothy Height say now? Those freedom gates are meant to be open to all - not just the rich and powerful.


In Harlem Stories (2014), artist Abigail DeVille acknowledges forgotten people by pushing a trash bin around Harlem. It is a striking performance art piece aimed at creating a temporary sculpture in the areas where she stops. Along her route, DeVille leaves plaster casts of her smiling face at specific sites, to lament the gentrification of Harlem. An extremely poignant moment is when DeVille visits her grandfather’s childhood home, which is now in a building worth seven-figures. DeVille reclaims the neighborhood of her ancestors through art, remembering “groups of people that occupied a space that no longer exists...but helped shape the space into what it is now.” DeVille beautifully describes the dispersing population as similar to “the migratory patterns of birds.” As Harlem becomes too expensive for most, this art invites us to remember Harlem’s founding fathers and mothers who are leaving.


Sugar Hill, a foundational area of the Harlem Renaissance, is the setting for Nari Ward’s Sugar Hill Smiles (2014). Ward places mirrored stainless steel at the base of tin cans, so that when people peer into them, they see their own reflection and often smile at the sight of it. There is great depth of substance behind the smiles, especially since the sales of the works go directly back into the community. Ward’s motivation results from the contrasting fact that the Harlem Brewing Company sells Sugar Hill Golden Ale, a brew with no relation to the neighborhood and one which does not contribute to Harlem’s future. This multimillion-dollar brewing company realizes the value of the Harlem name and seizes upon it; Ward is calling for people, as he is himself, to celebrate Harlem, but to do so in a way that nurtures the community.


The works that this exhibition have brought together, I believe, display a blueprint for America that the cities of this great country should follow, and whose values they should heed. Harlem stands tall in its veneration of the individuals who helped forge its distinctive identity. Their blood still runs through the veins of the neighborhood; their spirit is still felt in the air. We happen to live in a time when America has come so far—overcoming racial tensions that for centuries have divided it—yet now we stand on the brink of regression. What I hope people take away from this exhibition is the desire to champion the new, while protecting the old. The works in this exhibition celebrate the heroes of Harlem whose names adorn the buildings, streets, and statues, while offering a stark reminder that these moments in history cannot turn into fading memories of a freeing movement. The children of these great men and women must be protected. They have earned the right to have an ancestral home—one that is not governed by the financial restraints that gentrification imposes upon them. 


In the poem “Harlem,” Langston Hughes asks us a timeless question: “What happens to a dream deferred?” Hughes only just lived to see his dreams realized, dying a mere three years after the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. Regardless of our politics, 2017 should be a time when we embrace the joys of the Harlem Renaissance and the neighbourhood’s legacy of racial equality, respect for one another, and different groups of people joining together to fight for the greater good. However, when we consider the energy that these works emit, all coming together in celebration of this one single place, we must also be heartened enough to believe that Harlem's best days are yet to come. 

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