Group Exhibition
17 May–27 November 2022

Leilah Babirye and Tau Lewis feature in 'Black Atlantic'

Brooklyn Bridge Park, Brooklyn, New York, USA

Public Art Fund presents a group exhibition at Brooklyn Bridge Park co-curated by artist Hugh Hayden and Public Art Fund Adjunct Curator Daniel S. Palmer. Titled 'Black Atlantic', the exhibition brings together new site-responsive artworks by Leilah Babirye, Hugh Hayden, Dozie Kanu, Tau Lewis and Kiyan Williams. Their commissions, wide-ranging both materially and conceptually, create an exchange of ideas among artists of a similar generation that proposes an open, multifaceted, and heterogeneous idea of identity in the United States today.

The exhibition is on view from May 17 through November 27, 2022 throughout Brooklyn Bridge Park. “There’s magic and agency involved in creating a work of art by hand. In conceiving this exhibition, I was drawn to the idea of assembling a group of sculptors whose practice involves material exploration and an element of the handmade. It speaks to the idea of materialising a vision for the future and crafting your own identity,” says artist and co-curator Hugh Hayden. “Black Atlantic will illustrate a counterpoint to a monolithic perception of Blackness, and is reflective of the multitude of ways in which individuals can create a new vision within the context of American culture that is expansive, malleable and open to all.”

The historic Brooklyn waterfront served as a colonial-era ferry landing, active maritime harbor, and a vital shipping port through the 1970s. It was part of the network linking the continents of Africa and Europe with the Americas and the Caribbean. Black Atlantic—titled after the book by Paul Gilroy—explores these threads of connection and highlights the complex identities that have developed through the exchange of culture and ideas over centuries along transatlantic routes.

“Black Atlantic brings new site-responsive works by Hugh Hayden, Leilah Babirye, Dozie Kanu, Tau Lewis and Kiyan Williams to the broad public that visits Brooklyn Bridge Park,” says Public Art Fund Adjunct Curator Daniel S. Palmer. “The exhibition grew from my conversations with Hayden about his own work to encompass the perspectives of each of these five artists. With its rich history and views of lower Manhattan, New York Harbor, and the Statue of Liberty, the site is an especially resonant backdrop for the exhibition.” Hayden, Babirye, Kanu, Lewis, and Williams represent a generation of makers who came of age in an era of intense globalization and digital connectedness. They share a commitment to material exploration, a fusion of the contemporary with the historical, and processes of making and fabrication that include working by hand. Together, their commissions for Black Atlantic reflect a multiplicity of experiences and insights into global identity and culture.

Leilah Babirye, Agali Awamu (Togetherness): Babirye presents two groups of totemic sculptures located on opposite ends of Pier 1 along the water. Rising to nine feet in height, the five hollowed tree trunks are adorned with welded metal and found objects evoking jewelry and personal ornamentation that gives each figure a unique character. Babirye has carved each sculpture using traditional West African techniques that she learned in her native Uganda, before fleeing homophobic persecution and seeking asylum in the United States in 2015. Her new artworks are in dialogue with the vistas across the East River; a group of two sculptures at the south end of Pier 1 will frame the Statue of Liberty, while a group of three sculptures at the north end of the pier echo the Manhattan skyline visible behind them. These monumental totemic figures come together to represent a chosen, queer family, whose visibility in public space is a beacon of empowerment.

Tau Lewis, We Pressed Our Bellies Together and Kicked Our Feet, We Became Something So Alien That We No Longer Had Natural Predators

We Watched Humankind Evolve as We Absorbed into the Sea Floor, the Moon Stared Down at Us and Told Us the Earth Had a Heavy Heart

We Wondered If the Angels Had Abandoned Us, Or If They Simply Changed Shape Without Letting Us Know. Every Night Creatures Vanished, Every Morning Strangers Would Arrive: Embedded into the landscape adjacent to Pier 2 and the Greenway, Lewis’ commission comprises three six-foot-wide iron discs with detailed surfaces created through a process of sand-casting. Growing out of Lewis’ crinoid studies started in 2019, the intricate designs are inspired by these ancient sea animals. Still found in the Caribbean Sea today, crinoids or sea lilies and feather stars date back to about 300 million years before dinosaurs and physically resemble sea plants like coral with five-way symmetry similar to the starfish or sand dollar. Billions of fossil fragments can be found on shores of both sides of the Atlantic Ocean and no two star designs are exactly alike. Placed on the sloping lawn and protruding subtly from the ground towards the river and Atlantic, Lewis’ three cast disks also incorporate figural elements as well as West African Adinkra symbols. As if they were fossilized and preserved in the Atlantic for millions of years, the grouping ruminates on the wandering of the ancient sea animal, the scattering of their fossils, and their coexistence with Black bodies throughout the diaspora. Each disc acts as a visual poem or map, contemplating the ocean as an illimitable black geography, and recounting the stories ingrained in the crinoid. 

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