Behind the Walls: The Art of the Favelas

Fireworks Explode Over Rio's Maracana Stadium During The 2016 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – AUGUST 05: Fireworks explode over Maracana stadium with the Mangueira ‘favela’ community in the foreground during opening ceremonies for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games on August 5, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The Rio 2016 Olympic Games commenced tonight at the iconic stadium. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images).  Image Credit c/o Quartz
After Rio’s shiny, spectacular Opening Ceremony on Friday I came across this sobering picture that quickly brought me back to reality and filtered my view of the Olympic games. Brazil’s honest portrayal of the slave trade and the upbeat, energetic favela portion of the ceremony obscured some of the horrific present day realities behind the historical and social constructs that created the favelas in Brazil. Behind the graffiti tagged privacy walls that NBC aggressively tries to obscure during their broadcasts, lies some of the most economically disadvantaged areas of the country.  This image serves as stark reminder of the societal costs of the Olympic games.
When artists choose to use their work as a platform for social commentary they open our eyes, hearts and minds to worlds that are unlike our own.  I started thinking about the Brazilian artists responsible for putting Rio’s street art scene on the map. Celebrated artists like Os Gemeos have been conspicuously absent from the 2016 games, despite their mural contributions to Athens in 2004. On the other side of the coin the Rio Olympics have done an impressive job of showcasing local art when they chose 13 Latin American artists to design the official posters for the 2016 Olympic Games.
Olympic Poster designed by Eduardo Kobra. Photo c/o Facebook, Rio 2016 and Fast Co. Design
Other artists like Paul Ito touched on the complicated political, social and economic challenges Brazil faced in the months leading to the 2014 World Cup, however that level of artistic public discourse has been absent in the street art in Rio thus far, however if anyone has seen work to the contrary, please let me know.
Paul Ito, 2014. Photo: LA Times, c/o artist
French artist JR was commissioned for some imposing public installation projects in addition to his work that decorates the Olympic stadium in wheat paste portraits. He is currently using his social media presence to provide his followers with behind the scenes look at Olympic competitions and he is also partnering with popular YouTube celebrities to showcase his work.
JR at the Olympics in Rio:  Image Credit:  JR-Art
Despite all of this, there is one little known aspect of JR that is not getting much attention, and that is his work in the favelas.  Long before his documentaries, museum shows, books and TED talks, JR opened Casa Amarela, a community art center perched high atop a hill in Morro de Providencia, Rio’s first favela.  Up until 2014, the favela was only accessible by imposingly long stairways; now it boasts an elaborate $35M cable car system.  The fact that the government prioritized a gondola system over basic infrastructure necessities like a municipal water supply or an interconnected sewage system is a mind-boggling conundrum that speaks to the complicated dichotomy that exists in the favelas.  They are simultaneously romanticized and demonized as areas of stunted development that are riddled with crime that co-exist with trendy cafes and favela tours which hint to a looming threat of gentrification.
Casa Amarela in Morro da Providencia. Photo Credit: JR-Art
And then of course there’s the art created by the center that beautifies the area.  According to Phaidon, Casa Amarela “offers stage design, photography, and reading classes to local young people, as well as a children’s library, and open-air cinema screenings”; most importantly, the space is a cultural and educational hub for the community and a source of pride. Community centers like Casa Amarela provide the local children with an artistic refuge in an area that remains vulnerable to redevelopment.  Luckily for now, the center has staved off those threats and was recently remodeled so that Casa Amarela can continue to provide local children with artistic and educational services and according to JR, up to 100 children from the area will have an opportunity to experience the Olympic games in person.
At the end of the day isn’t that really what we want the Olympics to be? A much needed, albeit temporary escape from our realities?  For two weeks we get to celebrate athleticism, strength, work ethic and national pride.  We can enjoy respite from politics, Brexit, elections, crime, the economy, healthcare, Black Lives Matter vs Blue Lives Matter and most importantly we get a break from a traumatizing media cycle.  For a few days we can bask in the glory of gold.  Admittedly, 100 favela children experiencing the Olympics is a drop in the bucket that won’t rid Brazil of its many ills, but for a few brief moments, these children will get to bask in gold without having to pine for it from afar.

The Legacy of Larry Levan, the Soul of Paradise Garage

Larry Levan

Legendary producer/ DJ Larry Levan’s birthday is today, so I thought I would pay tribute to the musical master by giving you a sneak peek  of a project I’m launching on TONDI soon.  This piece is best read by listening to Levan’s music and this 1979 live recorded set at the Paradise Garage is about as good as it gets. Happy Birthday Larry!  



To get inside you first had to either be a member or know one.  It sounds exclusive but it is anything but that.  This kind of membership didn’t depend on how you looked, what you wore or which celebrities you knew, it was different here.  Members could bring in 6 people at a time and bouncers were far more relaxed about letting you inside if you had a good story to tell and a great vibe.  This was no Studio 54.  Here it wasn’t about tastemakers, influencers or followers; this was an oasis that provided guests with an escape from the world beyond its doors.  Inside these walls lived a pulsing organism whose energy was fueled by music that took control of everyone who entered.  You felt it moments before you step inside–walking up the infamous ramp, the rhythms of deep bass settling deep into your chest and the flutter of excitement growing stronger as the music becomes louder with each step.  Finally a shining neon light beckons you inside, while the music levitates you onto the dance floor where euphoric Garage dancers welcome you with smiles and sweat.

Paradise Garage Logo. Image credit:  Soundlr

The music, the people and the sound of the Paradise Garage created a perfect storm on New York’s King Street lasting a decade;  while many clubs have since tried to imitate the vibe or duplicate the success, few have succeeded.  An architect can build a building, but a designer gives it its soul, and Larry Levan was the soul of Paradise Garage. As the preeminent DJ reigning supreme over the turntables and the masses at the Garage, Levan’s devotion to creating a sonic experience became the soundtrack for unforgettable evenings.  Just as Levan was the soul, Garage members were the spirit that kept this venue going strong between 1977 and 1987.

Many paths crossed at the Garage, gay/straight, black/latino/white, people finding themselves or losing someone else, it was a collective of open-minded indivuduals.

Some infamous artists called the Garage home and they all shared the same memory of it being safe and spiritually fulfilling yet equally outrageous and uproarious.

“You’d go to bed around ten at night, get up at four in the morning, go to the Garage, and leave at noon, refreshed to the soul…They called it the Church because a great Saturday night would end up on Sunday.”  ~Grace Jones

“I don’t know if you know how important the “Paradise Garage” is, at least for me and the tribe of people who have shared many a collective spiritual experience there.  I discovered the Garage by divine ‘accident'” ~ Keith Haring

“The Garage was my church; it was where I healed my hurt”  ~ Danny Tenaglia

“It didn’t necessarily have to reference outside beacons or whatever outside tastemakers might deem to be important.  The Garage crowd was into what was going on at the Garage.”  ~ Francois Kevorkian

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Photo by Bill Bernstein

As disco faded along with the 70’s, the Garage ushered in a new era of house music loyal to disco’s roots by using music to create togetherness from otherness.  Good DJs use their music to tell a story that connects them to their audience.   What separates a good DJ from an exceptional one is their genuine appreciation and respect for the music and an ability to create aural alchemy that fills tracks with new meaning and energy. The 1979 recording of one of Levan’s Garage sets includes a section of “Dreaming a Dream” by Crown Heights Affair (about 22 minutes in) that is acoustically pitched and imbued with such force that by the time the horns kick in you have completely lost yourself in the track.

The beauty of the Paradise Garage was that the music and innovative sound system were merely the vessels to create unforgettable experiences-Larry Levan was the guide, transforming music into a euphoric high for listeners.  The crowd, eager to leave the realities of life behind them, briefly found paradise at the Garage. Sadly, reality has a way of catching up with everyone, even in paradise.  The closure of the Garage in 1987 and Levan’s death in 1992 left musical and communal holes in people’s souls. While underground clubs in the 70’s and 80’s were a dime a dozen, the Paradise Garage created a winning formula that many continue to chase to this day.  Today, aging socialites name drop Studio 54 in a desperate attempt for attention and exclusivity, but when people talk about the Garage, they make you feel like you were actually there. That is inclusion.

Feature in Arts.Black: The Provocation of Agency and Ambiguity

5. Gaskin, Backstage at the Evisu Ball, Manhattan.jpg
Gerard Gaskin, Backstage at the Evisu Ball, Manhattan, 2010 c/o MoAD

Last month, one of my reviews on MoAD’s latest exhibitions was featured on Arts.Black.  Please click on the link below to learn more about The Grace Jones Project and Dandy Lion.


The Provocation of Agency and Ambiguity

I truly appreciate the efforts of Taylor and Jessica to amplify the voices of black arts writers. Check out their latest post that features a letter to filmmaker Marlon Riggs.

About Arts.Black 

Arts. Black is a journal of art criticism from Black perspectives predicated on the belief that art criticism should be an accessible dialogue – a tool through which we question, celebrate, and talk back to the global world of contemporary art. The journal is edited by Taylor Renee and Jessica Lynne.


Bullets to Hashtags

In the absence of words there are just images. Here are some of the more thought provoking photographs that have helped me think about, process and grieve the tragedies of this week.

Image Credit: Laini Madhubuti Bad News Women via Instagram
Image Credit: Artist Dread Scott via Instagram 
Image Credit: Yagazie Emezi, Nikisha Brunson via Instagram
Image: @KahlilTheIllah via Twitter


Image: Chuck D via Twitter


Image Credit: Antwaun Sargent via Twitter
Image of @urbanbushbabes by Modern Women @gottesss via Instagram 

Alton Sterling, Philandro Castile.

“There is no contradiction between supporting law enforcement…and also saying there are problems, biases to be rooted out.” ~ President Obama

Fred Martins Transforms Cultural Symbols into Historical Icons

Photo Credit: Design Indaba

A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”- Marcus Garvey

Photo Credit: Design Indaba

Fred Martins, a Nigerian visual artist based in the Ukraine has recently completed a new series of images called “Orange, Black and Freedom”.  His work combines vibrant graphic design with photography through his use of digitally created hair picks that are transformed into African and African American leaders. In each image the individual teeth of the comb are aligned to outline the subject’s profile while a semi transparent black and while image of the leader is overlaid onto the pick.  I loved all 5 images in the series which include Fela Kuti, Martin Luther King Jr., Marcus Garvey, Patrice Lumumba and Nelson Mandela. For more on the artist and the series see below.



The Art of Serendipity: James Van Der Zee & Derek Fordjour

I love little moments of artistic serendipity.  I come across them often and they are the fuel behind this site.  Today, while looking at the work of photographer James Van Der Zee, I came across this picture:

The New York Renaissance, aka The Rens.  Photo: James Van Der Zee

It immediately reminded me of a painting by Derek Fordjour that I fell in love with a few months ago.

Derek Fordjour, Formation, 2015. Photo c/o Papillion

The Van Der Zee photo, circa 1925, was of The New York Renaissance,  the first all black and black-owned professional Basketball team founded by Robert “Bob” Douglas in 1923.  The team was named after the Renaissance Casino ballroom/casino in Harlem where they played weekly games. “The Rens” were also the first black basketball team to tour the U.S. to play against white teams. With a record of success throughout the 20’s and 30’s, The Rens recorded their first win against the original world champion Celtics in 1925 and during their tenure they won over 2,500 games.

I love both of these works of art.  When I first saw the Derek Fordjour show at Papillion Art in February, I was immediately drawn to it. The sheer size of Formation (60 x 40) pulls you into its 3D cubed pattern on the bottom half of the painting.  At the time I assumed the subjects were soccer players and I couldn’t figure out why three of them were concealed behind a curtain.  Were they on display?  The expressions on the players faces are ambiguous; are they simply numbers on a jersey, here for our entertainment, as the discarded numbers on the 3D floor suggest?

The Rens played basketball for black and white audiences, and in Harlem the games were often the precursor to an evening of dancing and partying in the ballrooms. The jovial environment in Harlem was rarely found during the team’s road travel.  Jim Crow laws forced the players to play under uncomfortable conditions in hostile environments.  Hotel rooms were impossible to come by, and race riots erupted during at least 5 of their games.  The hostility also extended to the governing body of basketball.  The American Basketball League refused to accept the Rens into the league in 1925. In a surprising form of solidarity, the original Celtics refused the join the league as well and as a result the Celtics and the Rens enjoyed a friendly rivalry that strengthened both teams.  As the son of one of the original members of the Celtics recalls:

“I was raised hearing that the Celtics were the greatest team of all time,” said Richard Lapchick. “My dad’s friends would say that and all our neighbors would say that. But he would correct them and say, ‘The Rens were every bit as good as we were in the beginning and were better than us in the end.'”

I think it’s important to view Van Der Zee and Fordjour’s works in tandem.  Through photography, Van Der Zee captured the history and stories of a time nearly forgotten.  Derek Fordjour’s work draws from sports, board games and circus/carnival motifs to explore ideas of vulnerability. Perhaps that is why Fordjour chose to obscure three members of the team in his painting.  The Rens are one of the greatest Basketball teams in history, yet their story is barely recognized in the athletic canon.  If these stories aren’t shared or given new life, the curtain slowly closes on their legacy.

I went back through my posts on when I first wrote about Van Der Zee-February 4, 2016.  I saw Fordjour’s Formation at Papillion on February 6th.  At the time I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why I was so drawn to the painting.  It is perfectly clear to me now.


Basketball in 1920’s Harlem, Digital Harlem Blog

Bob Douglas, The Father of Black Basketball, African American Registry

Derek Fordjour, Artist’s Statement

The Santa Monica Museum of Art Heads East


Last spring, in a strategic move that I related to on a very personal level, the Santa Monica Museum of Art decided to pull up stakes on its Bergamot Station location to re-evaluate its mission in a self-reflective, revitalization effort called SMMoA Unbound.

Today the museum announced that it would be relocating from Santa Monica in favor of the ever-growing Arts District Downtown.  The museum will have more square footage, a refined community based mission and a new name: the ICA-LA (Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles).  The museum has never held a permanent collection which enabled them to take risks and amplify early stage artists who were not regularly shown in larger institutions.

During their 17 year tenure in Santa Monica’s Bergamot Station, the SMMoA boasts an impressive curatorial resume:

They were one of the first museums to host first solo museum exhibitions for “Urs Fischer, Joyce Pensato, Alvaro Siza, Elias Sime, Al Taylor, and Mickalene Thomas; and the first solo museum exhibitions on the West Coast for such artists as VALIE EXPORT, Andrew Lord, William Pope.L, and Henry Taylor. Other distinguished exhibitions include: Freestyle (2001), a survey of work by 28 emerging African American artists curated by Thelma Golden; The Book Show: Raymond Pettibon (2001), curated by Roberto Ohrt; Cavepainting: Laura Owens, Chris Ofili, Peter Doig (2002), curated by the artists; George Herms: Hot Set (2005), curated by Walter Hopps; Michael Asher (2008); and Brian Weil, 1979–95: Being in the World, SMMoA’s current, critically-acclaimed exhibition curated by Stamatina Gregory.”

In total, SMMoA showed the work of 1,600 artists, of which 40% were artists of color and 46% women.*

Each May the museum held its legendary INCOGNITO benefit which gave aspiring collectors an opportunity to put their artistic instincts to work by anonymously choosing art created by over 300 artists.  Hidden amongst the works all priced at $300.00 each were blue chip contributions from John Baldesari, Bettye Saar, Mark Bradford and Ed Ruscha.  Their impressive programming and fundraising efforts cemented SMMoA’s reputation as an “Artists Museum”.  This transformation and the move downtown suggests a symbolic referendum on the current state of the westside’s art community as much as it is a gamble on DTLA’s.  The Arts District location will certainly place the new museum in closer proximity to the artists who live and work on the outskirts of downtown in Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles. The move also points to a missed opportunity for Bergamot Station, and the Barker Hangar in particular, which has in recent years been at the epicenter of contemporary art fairs in Los Angeles. The future of art fairs in Los Angeles will is likely to shift east as larger galleries, artists, institutions and young, emerging collectors have firmly planted their stakes downtown.

*2015 Unbound Press Release