Funk, God, Jazz, and Medicine: Black Radical Brooklyn

Creative Time

Funding Received: 2013
Brooklyn, NY
Funding Period: 1 year and 5 months
September 22, 2014

By Yisa Fermin

When Creative Time initially approached the Weeksville Heritage Center (WHC) about working together, we envisioned producing a project about how race is inscribed in urban infrastructures. However, through many of our in-depth curatorial conversations, we realized how important it is to follow the lead of Weeksville’s enlightened history of self-determination and agency. Rather than pointing out the crises of the neighborhood—which has far too long been the approach to most historically underserved urban communities in America—we decided to emphasize lesser-known, and more stirring, artistic and entrepreneurial narratives that provoke, inspire, and root the community in its historical context. These insightful, active collaborations between artists and local partners highlight the already vibrant aspects of the community and aim to strengthen their presence. As artists commit to enacting the change they want to see, they will contribute to and be woven into the running narrative of Central Brooklyn as an independent sanctuary. For centuries, Central Brooklyn residents and entities have engaged in this kind of self-determined practice. In fact, we’ve increasingly seen this narrative develop in our conversations with cutting edge artists who yearn for more opportunities to contribute to their own communities.

Artists such as Rick Lowe, Theaster Gates, and Edgar Arceneaux are prime examples of artist-driven “placemaking” initiatives that have led to significant economic and cultural development in underserved neighborhoods throughout the country. Many of these initiatives, like Creative Time’s work with Tania Bruguera in Queens or our four artist residencies on the Lower East Side in Living As Form, have one thing in common: they begin with the artist. For our collaboration with WHC, we are actively seeking to turn this model on its head. Echoing our belief in the immense potential and value of the community, we started this project by placing the artist and the community on equal footing. We have paired organizations in Central Brooklyn with artists who have a nexus in the area to provide the far too rare opportunity to intersect, listen, learn, and work together on a project that engages ideas of self-determination, encourages civic participation, and creatively acknowledges neighborhood life.

Funk, God, Jazz and Medicine: Black Radical Brooklyn is a pedestrian experience—accessible to all members of the public, free of charge— and an opportunity to navigate the neighborhood with an eye to the commissioned artworks as well as to both the hidden and sometimes apparent histories of Black radical self-determination that still linger on every block. Walking maps with information about the component artworks, participating artists, and site locations will be made available at the different sites and on the Creative Time website.


Artist-Community Collaborations
This project first and foremost brings Creative Time together with Weeksville Heritage Center; our other institutional collaborators include Boys and Girls High School (K455), Bethel Tabernacle African Methodist Episcopal Church, Central Brooklyn Jazz Consortium, and Stuyvesant Mansion (formerly known as Freebrook Spaces). Each one of these four partners is part of the bedrock of the community and is truly remarkable. With robust neighborhood input and involvement, we hope to attract widespread audiences and media coverage to help bolster positive attention for the community at this pivotal moment.

The artists selected by the curators have a connection to the neighborhood, are engaged in an ethical and sustained dialogue with the community, and are trailblazers in social practice art. Artist Xenobia Bailey began working with students from Boys & Girls High School to design and produce prototypes for up-cycled furniture created in the African-American aesthetic of Funk. The student-designed models will be constructed on a larger scale and exhibited in one of the Hunterfly Road Houses during the project’s official run in the fall. Over the course of her engagement on this project, Xenobia has developed a deep relationship with the high school students she’s worked with, watching the progression from initial curiosity to a full investment in the aims of self-determination and leveraging design and craft principals to support their creative dreams and financial goals. Xenobia describes the sense of ownership expressed by the students at this stage, observing: “The students are really into it, they’re talking about ‘this is our house, we’re making furniture for our house.’”

Simone Leigh’s practice engages in an object-based, sculptural exploration of female African-American identity informed by ancient African and African-American object-making. Recalling the Black Panther Partyʼs Free Peopleʼs Medical Clinic, which highlighted the need for localized health care as a politically radical project, Leigh will create a platform for discussing healthcare as both a practical and ideological concern by converting the ground floor of 375 Stuyvesant Avenue into a temporary space for dignified health care. Significant to the project, the house was once home to New York’s first African-American OBGYN and midwife to Malcolm Xʼs daughters, Dr. Josephine English. It features a waiting room with photographs celebrating the achievements of black women in health care, including Dr. English and Weeksvilleʼs Susan Smith McKinney. It also houses an installation of holistic medicine ingredients inspired by the Muthi Market in Durban, South Africa, and oral histories from WHC’s archives. Services offered at the clinic include homeopathic and allopathic services ranging from private medical consultations to yoga instruction.

Creative Time has also commissioned the Houston-based collective Otabenga Jones & Associates, who are working in collaboration with the Central Brooklyn Jazz Consortium (co-founded in 1999 by activist and educator Jitu Weusi, who also co-founded the influential educational and cultural center “The East”) to produce a community-based radio station inspired by the album cover for Hip-Hop group X Clanʼs debut solo album To the East, Blackwards (1990). The group converted the back-end of a pink 1950s-era Cadillac into an open-air, community-based radio broadcast station.

Finally, award-winning cinematographer Bradford Young created a three channel video installation titled Bynum Cutler. Inspired by the late playwright August Wilson, the film will feature velvet monuments set against the backdrop of Weeksville’s historic Bethel Tabernacle African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. Founded in 1847, it is the third African-American church to be established in Brooklyn.

Young, who has shown films at the Sundance Film Festival twice, was raised AME and will partner with Bethel Tabernacle AME Church, at the corner of Schenectady Avenue and Dean Street.


Community Engagement
In an effort to deepen our impact and create a meaningful experience for our stakeholders, Creative Time has hired DeeArah Wright, Founder and Director of Gather Brooklyn, as Community Liaison on the project. Creative Time is organizing many community events that will build excitement and participation in the project, and broaden public awareness around the erosion of knowledge on the extraordinary contributions and histories of African-Americans in Brooklyn. We are considering new ways the artists and their community partners can involve neighbors, friends and family in dialogues around the themes addressed in the various commissions.