Bushwick’s art Scene Meets Political Activism

To the unobservant eye, the current exhibit at Tiger Strikes Asteroid (TSA) gallery in Brooklyn’s trendy Bushwick neighborhood would seem like nothing more than a collection of baseball-themed work by a group of artists.

Baseball Show, which yes, is an exhibit with work inspired by baseball, actually challenges the conservative roots of the sport and uses the work as a metaphor for more specific issues. Taking a closer look, a visitor would recognize that the seemingly female batter in the corner may actually be transgender, the intricate collage of baseball teams near the entrance is a conversation about the problematic labeling of Native American mascots and the line of brightly colored pink gloves in the center of the room is a nod to feminism in sports.

In Bushwick, there has been an increasing trend in political activism through artists work. The neighborhood has become a hub for artists to use their platform to create work that addresses larger social issues. Instead of creating work that is simply appealing to the eye, artists are instead focusing on creating work with a social or politically charged theme.

“I think if any neighborhood, this neighborhood is where you’ll have shows that are really exploring trend topics and socio-political issues happening right now,” said Erica Bird, a member and curator of TSA. “Artists feel free to do that here.”

“I try not to make work that you come in and see once and talk shit about,” said Mitchell Reece, a young artist who recently had his first solo show in Bushwick that addressed racial inequality in the United States. “That kind of engulfed me in the Bushwick art scene for sure. Being there was really pivotal.”

Bushwick was not always the up-and-coming neighborhood with a vibrant art scene that it is today. Where you now see industrial spaces-turned-art studios was once block after block of warehouses and factories adjacent to three-floor apartment buildings mostly occupied by Latino residents.

The change in Bushwick first started happening in the early 1990s, when artists were looking for cheap spaces to rent out as their studios, while industrialization slowed and warehouse space opened up. Deborah Brown, a veteran of the Bushwick art scene, started working in her first Bushwick studio in 2005.

“That was a wonderful experience for me because I learned a lot about the community that was already here and had been for decades, and was very different from the artist community that had started to move in,” said Brown, who joined a community board as the only white person to understand the neighborhood.

Brown spearheaded the beginning of what the Bushwick art scene is today. “I banned together with other artists to create art activities out here. I just began doing shows there of other artist’s work, and that really caught fire because there were only three or four other artist-run galleries in the neighborhood, and together we tried to program events and create a sense of this as an outlet for some of the art that was being made in the neighborhood.”

Even after more artists started to emerge into the Bushwick art scene, the buzz around the neighborhood remained small, until a popular event, that still exists today, came into the works.

“Art activities were a very small-time activity until Bushwick Open Studios (BOS) began to be organized. I was on the first Bushwick open studios, but I was not the lead organizer, and that kind of plugged along for a few years and just with an audience of ourselves. And then suddenly it just took off.”

BOS, which Brown said had 30 to 40 participants at its start, has exploded into a globally known event which had 250 participants in 2018, according to Hyperallergic.

Brown, who still has a studio in Bushwick, decided to close her own gallery once more people, including non-artists, decided to move to the neighborhood. “The art scene was very pure, tense, and lead to a lot of gentrification that followed. It accounted to the desire to distance themselves from that.”

Aside from Bushwick Open Studios, there are still galleries and spaces in the neighborhood that promote work from a lot of younger artists, especially those with a message.

For Reece, whose work was exhibited in a small art space called Paradise Palase, focused on social justice activists and martyrs who have died fighting for their rights, or have become political prisoners in the process. The work itself is a combination of images, creating a collage of activists usually with the word “LOVED” typed across the poster.

Reece, a Texas native, said the inspiration came from his Texan roots and spiritual upbringing. Recalling a hymn sang at his church, he was moved to make what he calls Love Posters.

“Give me my flowers while I’m still alive. That’s powerful,” said Reece. “How can you make someone feel loved for their accomplishments while they’re still here on earth.” Although several of Reece’s subjects are no longer living, he still wanted to pay respect to their work and what they died for.

To be able to get his message across, being able to be in control of his own show was crucial to Reece. Many Bushwick art spaces allow for independent promotion and setup, giving the artist control of getting their message across.

“Having full control of setting up gave me a chance to speak about my work. The act of hanging and installing work myself keeps me in-tune with the work and why I do it in the first place,” said Reece.

According to Reece, artists have been using socio-political issues as their theme because that wouldn’t be something you would still be expecting to see today. “Because of what we see in social media and the news, now is the right time to express it. It pushes the agenda further.”

Asked if he thought that politically themed artwork was just a trend, he said “It might not be a trend as in ‘hip’ but it spurred people to say it’s not all pretty anymore and I need to use this gift I have for something more critical or positive.”

“If it is a trend, I hope it doesn’t die.”

*Original artwork by Mitchell Reece*

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