Bronx: Africa: An Artistic Journey into the Borough’s African Connection test

Dr. LeRonn Brooks

Bronx: Africa, a compelling, new art exhibition opened on February 3rd at the Longwood Gallery at Hostos Community College, addressing  powerful themes such as racial and sexual identity, contemporary culture, and familial connections. The show runs through May 4th and is curated by Dr. LeRonn Brooks, a Lehman adjunct assistant professor, in the African and African-American Studies Department, for the Bronx Council on the Arts.

The exhibition features artists working in a variety of rich media that includes paintings, photography, video, film, and multimedia sculpture. The gallery is located at 450 Grand Concourse and has already received media coverage in the New York Daily News, The Riverdale Press, and the Armory Art Show’s catalogue of  important events in the city’s art world.  “Bronx: Africa is an exhibition of 26 contemporary artists—from the Bronx or with relationships to the Bronx, exploring the influences of African cultures and communities,” explains Brooks. “This exhibition is to celebrate and re-imagine the cultural bonds that connect us to our neighbors as well as to the world. Therefore, the work in this exhibition resonates with the feeling of the Bronx’s increasing African communities and distinct artistic interpretations of the dynamic transformations accompanying it.”

The show was conceived two years ago when Brooks and Deirdre Scott, the executive director of the BCA, began a series of informal conversations at Lehman College about Africa, the African Diaspora and the increasing presence of Africans in the Bronx. Brooks, took on multiple responsibilities as curator of the show, including working with the BCA to select the artists, determining the exhibition’s themes, and considering the possibility of collaborating with the artists on the creation of new work, with the need for institutional funding. He worked closely with the artists, visiting their studios every few months and providing support so they could achieve their collective vision. Some of the show’s highlights according to Brooks are the massive installation of dynamic images focusing on black faces and hair braiding styles created by Nontsikelelo Mutiti. The work is installed as a huge span of wallpaper that stretches from the gallery’s ceiling to its floor. “Visitors love to use the work as a backdrop for photos, immersing themselves in the African diaspora as they pose,” Brooks notes.

Another centerpiece of the show is Laylah Amatullah Barrayn’s “wonderful photographs from Senegal” that Brooks says, “suggest the projection of identities through distinct uses of color and self styling.”

In 2014, The New York Times discussed how the influx of African immigrants were shifting demographics both nationally and in New York, particularly in the Bronx. While Africans accounted for about 4 percent of the city’s foreign-born population, they comprised about 10 percent in the Bronx. The Department of City Planning estimated that the African born population had increased 39 percent to 128,000 by 2011. The Concourse Village section has an especially large enclave of immigrants from Ghana, but there are also substantial numbers of Africans hailing from Nigeria, Liberia, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast. The Census Bureau has reported that at least sixteen African languages are spoken in the borough. “For me, the exhibition serves as a conceptual bridge where the imagination intersects with reality, as well as between these emergent communities and the question of the future,” says Brooks.