Up until the 1970s, the Brooklyn waterfront served as a shipping port and site of cultural and mercantile exchange along the transatlantic route between the Caribbean and the European, African, and American continents. Now transformed into Brooklyn Bridge Park, the waterfront and its piers are hosting “Black Atlantic” (on view through November 27, 2022), an exhibition featuring five artists of the Black diaspora that examines, like Paul Gilroy’s 1993 book of the same title, the legacy of the transatlantic crossing and the potential for creating more nuanced cultural and political formations from the collective experiences of immigration, identity, and nationhood.
Agali Awamu (Togetherness), a two-part sculptural grouping by Ugandan-born, Brooklyn-based Leilah Babirye, takes advantage of its placement on Pier 1. Three totem-like sculptures are positioned like sentinels against the backdrop of the Brooklyn Bridge and Lower Manhattan, while two additional figures dramatically frame the Statue of Liberty and the busy New York Harbor. Fashioned out of hollow tree trunks and festooned with gears, metal plates, and ornaments associated with the trans-femme community, Babirye’s imposing works stand at the ready. They shield and empower, forming a defensive family that celebrates kinship and the international LGBTQ+ community.
Hugh Hayden’s The Gulf Stream references Winslow Homer’s painting of the same title, as well as Kerry James Marshall’s 2003 response. A dinghy placed on the rocks at the entrance of Pier 2 looks as if it has just washed ashore. Constructed out of oak, with a central, carved cedar core that resembles human ribs and a whale spine, the boat metaphorically embodies the Middle Passage and survival.
Tau Lewis’s three cast-iron disks, which recall tombstones or prehistoric markers, are inscribed with marine creatures from the crinoid family, including urchins and starfish, and West African Adinkra symbols. Embedded in the ground on a grassy knoll and surrounded by bushes, these somewhat hidden works, once they’re discovered, invite meditation on ancient wanderings and the dispersion of bodies.
Houston-born Dozie Kanu employs a more surreal approach. Located on a plaza overlooking the waterfront, On Elbows juxtaposes a white, cast concrete couch mounted on “Texan Wire Wheel” rims (inspired by the street auto “SLAB culture” of his hometown) and a cylindrical vessel filled with black liquid that pulsates like a beating heart. Overlaying references to psychoanalysis and individual and collective identity, Kanu’s installation probes the tension between Black creative expression and the materialist desires of modern capitalist culture.
Kiyan Williams uses sampling and recycling to explore and redefine notions of Blackness. Ruins of Empire riffs on Thomas Crawford’s Statue of Freedom, which stands atop the dome of the U.S. Capitol building. Alluding to the Roman goddess Libertas and Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s Statue of Liberty, Williams’s partial figure—just the upper half and rooster-topped head—retains a monumental presence. It appears to be moving resolutely forward—its momentum perhaps a hopeful articulation of the promise of freedom and openness—and simultaneously about to collapse, its soil-covered, eroding body in danger of disassembly.
Versed in popular culture and Black history and speaking to the intersecting narratives of migration and the immigrant experience, the works in “Black Atlantic” educate and enrich. Through their dialogue with viewers, they enunciate what Gilroy called “the polyphonic qualities of Black cultural expression.”