“Black Atlantic,” presented by Public Art Fund and currently on view at Brooklyn Bridge Park, brings together newly commissioned works by five artists—Leilah Babirye, Hugh Hayden, Dozie Kanu, Tau Lewis, and Kiyan Williams—sited across the waterfront park’s three piers, with views of New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty beyond. Hayden, who also curated the show, and co-curator Daniel S. Palmer talk about conceiving the exhibition as a group show with a focus on craft and materiality, adapting artworks for public display, and the relevance of sculpture’s reality-building capacity for younger artists of the African diaspora today.
Sculpture: How did you both get involved, and how did the show develop?
Daniel S. Palmer: Hugh and I met in 2012, when he was in residency at Abrons Art Center. So I’ve been aware of and admired Hugh’s work for a long time, and we have been in dialogue for quite a number of years. When I was at Public Art Fund it was a major focus of mine to want to be able to share Hugh’s work with the city, so we started a conversation originally about doing a solo project together at Brooklyn Bridge Park. And then Hugh, do you want to talk about how your thinking evolved to what’s become “Black Atlantic”?
Hugh Hayden: A big part of it also has to do with my background as an architect—in all of my exhibitions there’s some consciousness to approaching the site and creating works that are going to have a dialogue with the site. On this maritime setting, in Brooklyn, looking at Manhattan and also the Statue of Liberty, in some ways it would be impossible not to have some dialogue with the water and maritime history. And it evolved into this interest in what’s called the Black Atlantic and the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade, but also the African diaspora and how that has reverberated. Initially it was about my experience as an individual, but with a subject matter like that, part of it was that I couldn’t be a sole voice. I also started thinking of the park as an outdoor museum, where each lawn or each space was a gallery. So there was the idea that you could have different works engaging with the site. And then with all that, coupled with the reaction to George Floyd and 2020, there was an opportunity to share the stage more people who I thought would have a voice in this dialogue and reflect a variety of different voices of the African diaspora that don’t have a traditional notion of a person of African descent in the United States, in New York City, but who also work in sculpture, and who are really involved with understanding materiality physically and sculpturally and conceptually. It was an opportunity to share the stage, and a way of engaging with a larger audience and sharing the opportunity with other artists whose work I admire.
Sculpture: Did you consciously set out to include artists of a similar generation?
HH: That was somewhat embedded in that dialogue about Black artists now, or artists of African descent, and sort of a whole market around them and specifically around painting and figuration, and that there’s so much more going on. And also I think that with sculpture, as a physical realm of reality, that artists working in sculpture have a certain agency about creating a new reality—you’re actually making something that’s not just a flat image; we’re more actively creating a new vision.
DP: I remember in a lot of our conversations about, first of all, the shift to expand to create this into a group show and include a lot more artists. There was a big discussion about two things: one, taking the platform of an exhibition and public space and bringing these other voices into the dialogue, and the second part was that there was this group of younger artists who are all doing things that you were already in dialogue with. You were feeling these affinities with these other artists, and I think what a lot of what this show does is crystallizes or articulates these affinities. And you’re all at a similar point in your career—some have had more exposure or less exposure or whatever—but you’re all coming up together, and this is an important showcase of this next generation, in a sense.
HH: There’s still an age range—I think I’m the oldest at 38, and Tau might be the youngest—but we’re still somewhat of a similar generation in terms of our relationship to an iPhone, and still working in sculpture. It was probably stated, at least in our conversations, that everyone was under 40, but it was also just the work that we were drawn to. One of the big premises of the show is the handmade. You could say that at a certain point in their career, someone might be more removed from making their work. I did recently visit Martin Puryear in his studio and he does still make his work with an assistant, but a lot of younger artists today actually aren’t as familiar with actually being able to make something. We had an interest in makers and people who have a consciousness about the creation of something.
DP: I would also add that this dialogue is partly about globalism. This group of artists all grew up in this similar moment in the world there was a little bit of a globalist moment or a moment of awareness of the bigger-picture connections, back and forth between the United States, the Caribbean, Canada, overseas to Portugal, the U.K., Africa. The vision is also very global in terms of the identities of the artists, or just even the biographies of the artists—where they were born, where they grew up, where their parents are from. I think that tracks and reflects very interestingly on the moment of people who were born in the ‘80s, ‘90s. And the beginning of the Internet—growing up without the Internet, but having it.
HH: And isn’t that we set out to look at biographies; mainly we looked at the art first. As a result of it we had these sorts of biographies. Dozie Kanu is a first-generation Nigerian but born in Houston but lived in Portugal. Or Leilah’s from Uganda but a refugee living in New York. Tau is from Canada but lives in New York. I’m from Dallas, and typically a Black person doesn’t necessarily know their ancestry beyond like, a state. Versus, I love that finding people who had this interest in making physical, sculptural work that has a material and cultural history resulted in this group of artists that all have such a varied background that doesn’t easily fit into one box.
Sculpture: What was the process of developing the projects with the artists, as all new commissions?
DP: A lot of times artists come to solo exhibitions with Public Art Fund already with the infrastructure and gallery support to be able to make large-scale work. One of the things that I think PAF is really incredible for having done with this exhibition is to provide the institutional and infrastructure and financial support to help the artists make these works, to do a lot of the interaction and interfacing with the fabricators, to help allow the artists’ vision to be supported in a way they felt they were able to make the work. And a lot of new processes: I don’t think Tau Lewis has ever cast work in iron before, and large-scale things like that. So that’s been really great to be able to do.
HH: It was also different for PAF to do a group show. Even for me as a co-curator, the day-to-day nitty gritty—there’s a lot an artist doesn’t normally think about when a show gets put together. In this case, it was both for myself but also for them.
DP: You kind of got the view from the other side. But the cool part about that, too, is that for all of the artists, they got to think about the incredible opportunity of sharing their work in a public setting, but also the very new sets of considerations that entails. For a lot of artists, it’s like, “Okay, we have to have conversations with engineers and the discussion of permitting,” and make sure that it’s all going to be safe and secure. I found that in terms of our dialogue with all of the artists, that helped to crystallize and focus their ideas even more in a meaningful way, and I think the final works are stronger for it.
Sculpture: Can you give an example of any technical challenges that came up, that changed the work in an unforeseen way?
HH: My piece definitely evolved in terms of the size, the scope, the material availability because of the pandemic, but also what the materials can do, and also transforming something that’s easier for me to do in my studio at a certain scale to a public scale. It’s gone through a lot of variations of small study models. In my practice, typically I’m doing a lot of the work myself, and a lot of it is very laborious and handmade. This piece looks similar, but the actual way it’s put together is more advanced—the hull bending and lamination, but also using a computer to do a lot of the sculpting that I would normally do by hand. It’s a combination of using a more high-tech 3D technology combined with handmade traditional woodworking techniques. I would describe the project in general for a younger or emerging artist as having greater resources that can really lead to greater efficiencies in producing a work. And also ambition. But also dealing with: this might be climbed by multiple people, there might be a hurricane, or it needs to last outside in a range of weather during November. You have to grow up kind of fast.
DP: I remember a lot of your very early approach was like, “Yeah, I can carve it.” Then, talking with an engineer, there was sort of like, “Well, you need to have a metal internal structure, so that if somebody climbs on it, it doesn’t break.” All of the artists in the show are people who work very much intuitively by hand; I think it’s an important part of the show as well, the dialogue between the handmade and the large-scale fabrication. The artists have incorporated those real-world considerations in a way that—especially in your piece—is seamless, and it has been able to bend together the constraints with the artistic vision in a way that has allowed the vision to shine through, but the constraints to be subtly, and almost secretly, responded to. When you look at the finished piece that Hugh’s boat is, you wouldn’t really know unless you know how to look for it that there’s any internal structure or this other technological support that happens to make it possible. It really is like magic in that way.
HH: I have this idea of my smaller works that there’s typically no smoke and mirrors. Everything is actually there, it’s just a matter of looking at the details. That is the magic that happens in translating an idea to the material world that in painting you can’t do in the same way. I have seen Kiyan’s earthworks before, but I’m imagining that might be the most unconventional material in the show—creating a sculpture using dirt, in the public realm. Did that have more curveballs?
DP: In an interesting way, that is the work that is probably the most typical for the artist materially. In a way, yes, you work in wood, but the internal structure was very new. Kiyan’s work is partly just a matter of scale and support in terms of making the head of the statue ready for site, but in terms of the actual dirt, it’s the same technique that they’ve been using for quite a while in their practice.
Sculpture: Could you talk a little more about your work in the show, The Gulf Stream, and how you developed the concept and use of materials?
HH: The initial idea happened on the site in 2019. But it was somewhat inspired a Kerry James Marshall painting I saw at his “Mastry” show at the Met Breuer (2016–17). There was a painting he had made called The Gulf Stream, and it showed a boat that was failing, and the people onboard were having a leisurely time. That wasn’t typically an image you would see of people of African descent in a boat on the water. I was really drawn to that image, and this idea of telling a new story and a new narrative. And the art’s not science and it’s not history; it’s a new way of looking at the world. In researching his work further, I found out that his work is based off a Winslow Homer piece called The Gulf Stream, showing this Black man in a dinghy with the mast broken, with stormy water and sharks right around him, and a ship—maybe—in the background. In researching it more, it was this kind of abolitionist gesture first made by Homer, sort of showing the state of a Black person at that time in the United States in peril.
Anyhow, I wanted to remix art history, with the Kerry James Marshall painting, the Winslow Homer painting, and adding in some of my own interests, in my work in general and my use of wood. I’m interested in making the world around us more anthropomorphic. I do a lot of work with skeletons, and I had this idea that they have no race or gender or identity—they can enable you to look at something differently. That became an interest in re-creating a boat that is a sort of vessel that has many references of people on the water that aren’t just about the slave trade—whether the River Styx, or Jonah and the Whale, and this idea of being transported. In general I’ve always been in awe of images of boats where the construction looks like it’s some sort of wooden creature, or even sea creatures on old maps. I’m interested in throwing all these sort of ideas into a blender to make something new. And for me that’s what being an artist is—it’s creating a new view of the world from things around you and your understanding of them.
So that’s resulted in this new dinghy-like boat, 14 feet long, that’s made of oak and cedar. The hull of the boat is made of oak—which is a darker color—and the skeletal, rib-like structure of the boat is made of cedar. The white cedar is contrasted in color with the oak, and both have a history in boat-building and also as outdoors lumbers. They also create this new vessel or cavity that’s simultaneously a boat, from one view, and then from the interior view it looks like some sort of creature. It’s going to be washed ashore—not directly along the water line, but along the shore of the park. From a distance it might just look like a boat, but as people get closer, and since it’s sort of on the same ground plane, they’re able to look in the interior and it will transform into this skeletal cavity. I like that as a sculpture, it’s not just a static thing, what you expect it to be—that it changes on the viewer. But it’s just using wood. Most people on earth have some understanding and access to trees and wood. I have this desire, if I’m able to transform how you think about something so typically banal and mundane in your life, that if I’m able to reorient what you think a boat can do or what a whale is or the skeleton that you have in your own body, that it’s a way in. An artist needs to further your ideas conceptually about what this work is in dialogue with. But I feel there’s no line drawn in the sand saying, “This is a life boat that came off of a slave ship.” I’m not trying to say this boat is coming from a specific xyz.
DP: We have that quote from you that the sculpture is “both a boat and a body, whose unknown passengers may have made it to safety or been swallowed by the sea.” And it relates back to our earlier discussions about that Winslow Homer painting. I think I told you when we were first talking about that Kerry James Marshall painting that I had written about the Winslow Homer painting in a graduate art history class I took way back when. And the ambiguity of that painting is so much about the uncertainty of abolition and of the role of Black people in America at that point. Sadly, we’re still in a moment of uncertainty and of crisis.
HH: Some of the works in the show, while they might have coded meanings, don’t necessarily come off as such a loaded vehicle. I want all of my work to be something that is very loaded and charged and historical in a way, but also something that can be approached naïvely. The way into all my work is the American Dream, and whether it’s a dinner or a sculpture, there’s simultaneously something you want to be a part of, but also something that might be threatening or challenging. That’s one thing I like about public art, in that people aren’t paying admission to enter this park, like they’re going in a museum, and many people aren’t even going there to see art, but they will be confronted with it. Then they can read about it, and it can have a more profound effect. While there are definitely issues dealing with Blackness and the African diaspora, I like that the work doesn’t have to only be seen that way; that can be an advantage that can lead you in.
DP: To add another animal to it, it’s almost a little bit of a Trojan horse for these powerful ideas, too.
HH: Within a lot of the art market, there are more expectations of what the work of a Black artist in 2022 should look like. And I like that the artists in this show all have a very disparate view of the world, and that’s reflected in their work. In a group show in the United States, you need a really heterogeneous image and showing of ideas.
“Black Atlantic” is on view at Brooklyn Bridge Park through November 27, 2022.