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Anne Whiting

Artists in Action: Fostering Community, Bridging Divides with IThou Art

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Women-to-watch Allie Wilkinson and Jessica Martinaitis are using art for positive social change with exhibitions and conversations designed to educate, empower, and call to action.

On a slushy Saturday afternoon, tucked inside an intimate exhibition space in Chelsea’s Gallery District known as the Rush Arts Gallery, a group of art lovers joined in a circle and took a deep, collective breath before delving—with renewed presence and awareness—into the designated discussion, a panel titled ‘Gentrificonversation: Acknowledging Artwashing.’  On the walls were works by 12 New York-based contemporary artists, commissioned to reflect on their experience with the negative impacts of gentrification in New York City and Brooklyn.

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Collage artwork by Fort Greene-based artist Nae Howard

The panel was hosted by IThou Art—an arts organization that supports social movement and progress through art, co-founded by Allie Wilkinson and Jessica Martinaitis, along with artist Liam Alexander—and was part of their Exchange event series, a collaborative communication platform that aims to bring together diverse community members in various neighborhoods to discuss negative social issues in a positive, solutions-oriented environment.

Allie and Jessica, the inspiring women behind the scene, took time before the group discussion to tell bSmart more about their mission, and the positive work of Exchange and IThouArt.

‘‘IThou’ comes from the philosopher Martin Buber,’ explained Jessica. ‘When you get rid of the idea of the other you create a space of us, of I & Thou, and that’s where you can grow and move forward, it’s kind of like this magical space of…’—

they both accidentally chimed in unison—‘relatedness.’

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Jessica, Allie, & co-founder Liam at The Exchange’s Opening, December 15th. Photo by Erin Sanger.

‘I love that,’ said Allie. ‘IThou breaks down the divide between people,’ she continued.  (IThou started when co-founder Liam showcased portraits of activist photographers, ‘the unsung heroes of activist photography,’ Jessica called them, which brought awareness to their various causes and how they used their art to make an impact and spark conversation.)  ‘The idea is to bring people together who wouldn’t normally all be in a room together; we’ve created this space for people to start talking to each other.’

They explained that gentrification was the first social movement they wanted to take on because it was an important topic in their own lives: as artists living in Brooklyn, they themselves had joined the waves of gentrification that are shifting cultural plates and (inadvertently) forcing long-time residents out of their homes.  Aware of this, they wanted to address their impact.

‘That became the basis for continuing the IThou principle,’ said Jessica, ‘and we were asked to help produce an exhibition and create this organization which endeavors to bring awareness and bring in new audiences that are seemingly unimpacted and really develop an awareness in new communities, and then enroll them into supporting the art, because art is a tool for communication.’

The ultimate goal, with the help of visual arts as a prompt, is to foster an exchange of ideas between artists and viewers, and transform the conversation around gentrification from one of negative tension and divide into one of community and inclusion.  

Some of Allie’s work was on display: a piece entitled ‘Fog (Meika)’, a graphite portrait of one of her neighbors in Crown Heights.  The portrait was covered with a sheet of vellum, so the viewer could only slightly see the drawn subject, but never totally clearly.  It was based on a conversation she’d had with Meika (her actual neighbor in her building), in which Meika had said:

“To be able to see somebody past their identity…you don’t get so angst about their behavior…because that’s not who they are, that’s just the level of consciousness that they’re at.  People are consistently demonstrating their fog; their fear…their guilt.  We were not created as that.  So to be able to see beyond the fog—That’s love.”

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Allie & her portrait subject and neighbor Meika. Photo by Duane Lyken.

It was a beautiful encapsulation of the mission of IThou Art and the Exchange series.

All of the artists—an equal ratio of women and men—in this current exhibition had participated in at least one prior Exchange conversation.  Much of their work stemmed from these discussions—a creative way of showcasing otherwise frustrated thoughts about the difficult topics at hand.

I also had the opportunity to speak with Harlem-based artist Duhirwe Rushemeza, whose work incorporated actual pieces of metal from the Dominican nail salon above her studio, which closed due to changing rent circumstances as a result of gentrification.  The rusty metal was mounted on concrete and overlaid with print motifs emblematic of various cultures she has encountered on her travels and studies of art.

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"Ancien Nouveau" by Duhirwe Rushemeza

The panel on Artwashing was hosted by Anthony Rosado, a Bushwick-based artist whose own works about gentrification were also showcased.  After having us breathe in and out in unison, he explained that the theme of the talk would be ‘Arts-Induced Mass Displacement’, a.k.a. the process by which artists seeking cheap rent are actually contributing to the problems that gentrification causes.  The group, a collective of individuals, friends, artists, writers, educators and researchers, both native and new to NYC and its varied neighborhood dynamics, began to discuss rising rents, the loss of central services, and the erasure of original culture as some of the negative byproducts of artists moving to Bushwick, Crown Heights, etc.

‘As artists we have a great responsibility to help the communities that we're in,’ exclaimed one of the panel's featured guests, an actress from Puerto Rico who had been invited to explain her relationship with her neighborhood.  One of the ways IThou Art does this, another guest noted, is by abolishing artists’ apathy, reminding them of the power of their work and choices.

Allie, Jessica, and IThou Art are fostering a cross-cultural, collaborative exchange of ideas, communication, and actions to help one another see through the fog and embrace a myriad of perspectives.  Of course, there is no better way to have these conversations than when surrounded by art, a medium which brings people together in visual curiosity to engage in discussion about its representation and meaning, and its differing connotations depending on its viewer.  Through art we both express ourselves and achieve a collaborative viewpoint in the act of absorbing the work of someone else's eyes and heart.

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"Un dia" by Anthony Rosado

Stay tuned for more Exchange events and positive social impact through art with IThou Art!

 

 

 

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