Last Wednesday, the Bushwick Art Crit Group met for an evening of critique that in many ways wasn’t out of the ordinary. Yet the founder of the non-profit community art organization, Christopher Stout, admitted later that during his opening comments his voice began to shake as he introduced the curator and opening presenter, Anthony Rosado. “No one likes to feel like you are part of the problem, especially when you are working so hard to bring good into the world,” Christopher said in a follow-up interview with B+B.
Months prior, Anthony had contacted BACG and pointed out the lack of native Bushwick artists in their programming, despite the organization’s otherwise diverse lineup of presenters including artists of color and feminist, queer, and trans artists. “I certainly have my own sensitivities and preoccupations and up until four months ago, I was almost radically smug,” Christopher said at the meeting. “As a liberal and someone who considers himself radically multicultural, I’ve felt very, very safe and I’ve always said: ‘Look at our record, look at our record, look at our record.’ And here was this wonderful person saying, ‘Yeah, but have you looked at it this way?’ And I was like, ‘God, no, I haven’t, no one’s ever said this to me before.'”
Anthony’s comments convinced Christopher that it was high time for a BACG meeting to spotlight all native Bushwick artists, hence #nativeBushwick. At the BACG meeting, he introduced himself simply: “My name is Anthony Rosado, I am an Afro-Latino who was born in Bushwick.” He thanked Christopher, saying he’d become “ever so appreciative” of the relationship that had grown between them over the past couple of months. “I appreciate the intersectionality we are creating and that we spread through this, and I hope that whatever conversations come up tonight can continue.”
Most of the work on view that night was imbued with issues of identity, thoughts of home, and efforts to document a changing neighborhood. Rosado presented mostly collages, one of which included a poem he’d composed, ““Un día mi hij@ will ask me where are we from, I will take mi hij@ to ruins reglorified, mi hij@ will look from me to our ruins and back wondering, ‘Where are we from?’ Un día.” [Note: the “@” is indicative of gender ambiguity.]
The poem, Anthony explained, was a sort of letter to his future self. “I’m going to have to come to the point one day where I take my child back to the closest thing I have where my family is from,” he said.
Anthony’s grandmother moved here when she was 15, but he himself has very little connection to Puerto Rico proper. “There’s a big disconnect to the culture, to the value of the language, to the value of understanding your history and to even going back,” he explained. “I myself have never been back, so the only thing I have is Bushwick in terms of my Puerto Rican-ness– and I think you can see how that’s changed over time when you walk the streets.”
When we first met Anthony Rosado at Bushwick Open Studios, he was speaking as a panel member in a discussion amongst artists about Detroit, Bushwick, and gentrification. He spoke passionately about the changes happening in his neighborhood, and lamented the loss of what he called “a real estate that’s more intangible,” or Bushwick’s Puerto Rican flavor in lieu of new traditions like Bushwick Open Studios.
But rather than dismissing it all in an angry huff, he seemed intent on extending real bridges between two communities he sees as having very opposing views, and argued with the other speakers about the best way to achieve this. During the discussion, Anthony cited one organization in particular, BACG, as being part of the problem.
“It is a predominantly white space,” Anthony explained to us during a follow-up phone interview over the weekend. “When I went there in March or February, I was one of three people of color out of like one hundred people. I think it’s problematic that there is an event happening in Bushwick that is all white when Bushwick hasn’t for a long time been, and isn’t currently, predominantly white.”
But Anthony reached out to BACG, where he found receptivity, and began working in tandem with Christopher to organize a #nativeBushwick critique night. It spotlighted Anthony’s work as well as that of four more artists, all born in Bushwick: Bianca Perez, Danielle de Jesus, Jendog Lonewolf, and Noël Hennelly.
“I do think that sometimes in the art world we see ourselves as cultural evangelists and cultural preservationists, so it was very interesting to see the effects of gentrification on people who had been there 15 years ago and to really understand the human cost,” Christopher said after the meeting. “It’s something that I struggle with, and when Anthony said, ‘Think about the effects that you have on the community,’ that was something important for people to think about.”
Of course, Rosado is not alone in both his experiences and sentiments. His social media activism has attracted the attention of others who can identify, like Perez– one of the participating artist at #nativeBushwick BACG. “We have a common Facebook friend, and our mutual friend shared something where [Anthony] was criticizing the group, BACG,” Bianca recalled. “And I commented on his post, like, ‘I concur with all you said, I totally understand how you feel as a creative young person of color living in Bushwick, it’s a weird existence.”
At that point, Bianca said, she’d never been to a BACG meeting. “But the reality is that I wouldn’t have been too keen on attending just on my own because these spaces tend to be kind of intimidating to people like me. It’s hard for me to find common ground,” she said. “It’s just this discomfort you feel sometimes as a young person of color entering predominantly white spaces, it’s going to be awkward– it’s unfortunate, but that’s how it tends to be. ”
Eventually, Anthony would coax Bianca into attending a meeting. “I wanted to show her what the space is like,” Anthony recalled.
We asked Bianca if she feels that many of the galleries and art happenings in Bushwick are similarly inaccessible. “That’s not even Bushwick and not even Brooklyn, that’s just an art world thing,” she said. “When you come from a working class family, the whole art thing is a myth, it’s a joke, that’s not something you can do. And on top of that, when you do get in to these spaces, you think, ‘OK this is possible, my parents were wrong, I can do this.’ But you find none of these people look like me or come from a place like me, and then it just compounds the idea that maybe it isn’t possible.”
Not surprisingly, the work Bianca presented on Wednesday night seemed to be all about alienation. “Like I’m standing on the outside looking in,” she explained to us during a followup interview. Though not all of her work is explicitly about gentrification, Bianca said, it’s a theme that is definitely present.
“It’s something I’m constantly thinking about. I’ve had housing troubles ongoing for two years, three, and I have to find a way to exorcise those demons because it’s hugely stressful,” she explained. “But I think it’s mostly: why create anything in general? I dunno, what else can you do with your life? Where I come from the whole concept of life is get a good job, make some money so you can move up— the picket fence thing— so I feel the only truly individual thing you can do is create stuff. “
Despite the universality of a sentiment like that, Christopher said “a silent majority” of native Bushwick artists turned down the opportunity to participate because they didn’t want to risk being involved in an event that might pigeonhole their work. “As soon as I say work about gentrification, or work about being a native of Bushwick, people are expecting to see work that’s race-based and class-based and, quite frankly, there were many native Bushwick artists whose work isn’t about that and they weren’t interested in participating because they weren’t interested in the association.”
Both Christopher and Anthony admitted recruiting people to participate was a difficult process, though for very different reasons.
“We started looking for native Bushwick artists and they weren’t necessarily easy to find or readily available which kind of something right there in and of itself,” Christopher recalled at the BACG meeting. “If someone said to me, ‘Who’s making really interesting work who happens to be trans in Bushwick?’ I can tell you. This is something that I couldn’t tell you, and I couldn’t find anyone to tell me to tell you and I thought that was rather concerning.”
In all of Anthony’s searching he could find only 12 native Bushwick artists. “Which was insane,” he said. “Most of them were uncomfortable with the task. I think it’s pretty problematic there were that few artists I was able to find. I though it was pretty problematic that most artists were hesitant about speaking in front of that community because they are intimidated.”
He added: “These conversations that are wrapped around this whole genre, these conversations are difficult as a person of color who is experiencing gentrification,” Anthony said.
Despite the hurdles, the meeting finally came together. Christopher’s opening statements made clear that the discussion that night might be full of uncomfortable moments. “That’s what we’re here for,” Christopher explained in a later interview. “Galleries have a role, museums have a role in the art world and quite frankly, when something gets in a gallery, often times it’s had a PR rinse, it’s had a sales-ability rinse, it’s had a client predetermined, and if it doesn’t fit this criteria, it either gets scrubbed extra hard or not shown. I think the construct of a lecture organization is very essential in giving people the power and ability to present things that don’t forget the criteria of being easily digestible or sell able or what have you.”
Anthony expressed his appreciation for Christopher’s real-as-hell opening statement. “From the moment he gave his speech, it already felt successful– the way that he was speaking, the awareness that he had, the way that he was reflecting,” Anthony recalled. “He didn’t have to say ‘I’m a white man with my privileges and there is an erasion that is happening that is obvious.’ He didn’t have to say those words, but he did say them and he said them in a beautiful way that was way more inviting. That’s what’s needed, right? From that moment, I was like, this is the way the bridges happen. We can come together and I can infiltrate your space via love in this way, and the outcome is, when we do have a room full of white people, to see a man confirm his privileges and be vulnerable enough to do so, in front of those who are similarly privileged, it helps, it helps in a very good kind of ally way.”
Bianca agreed. “I felt like it was really positive and people were really open to the themes that were being discussed,” she said. “For what it was, I felt like it was very informative for both parties.”
A meeting like this could easily be perceived as an exercise in tokenism or an olive branch made of dust. But Anthony said he didn’t feel as though the artists were being cordoned off or treated any differently. “It’s not like the works were made solely in light of gentrification– that, of course, has its webs– but for me, it felt when I saw each person, it was like this is a person that is part of the space. This is just another artists who is here.”
The perceptions of the audience, however is a little bit harder to measure. “I don’t think anybody in the audience, myself included, we are not the demographic for those luxury condos, but at the same time, here we are,” Christopher said. “But it made me think, ‘Well what can I do?’ I thought the conversation shifted from, ‘Well, is this my fault?’ to however minimal, ‘Well, what can I do to help?’ by bringing more awareness. And I hope everyone else there will ask themselves the same kinds of questions.”
According to Christopher, the meeting was also immediately helpful to some artists. He said the most exciting outcome for him came the next morning when he opened his inbox to find two emails from gallerists requesting contact info for some of the participating artists. “As a person who is running an organization whose goal is to empower artists, to me the biggest indication that it was successful was that the gallerists were interested in hearing more about the people they heard present,” he said. “Because that happened, to me it was 1 million percent an overwhelming success.”