Utopian Vision Born of a Harsh Truth

 New York Times Review, April 2014 

Photos from Aljira’s opening reception for Aljira at 30, Dream and Reality at the New Jersey State Museum on view through September 28th.  Chief Curator for the exhibition is Margaret O’Reilly, Curator of Fine Art, New Jersey State Museum. Co-curators are Carl E. Hazlewood, artist, writer, independent curator and co-founder of Aljira; Jaret Vadera, Artist | Cultural Producer; and Cicely Cottingham, Artist and Co-Founder, Aljira Design. Photo credit: Akintola Hanif. Click here to view more. 

Aljira at 30: Dream and Reality

 Aljira at 30, Dream and Reality is a landmark survey exhibition presented by the New Jersey State Museum celebrating Aljira’s 30th Anniversary. A lively, historical overview, the exhibit contains many archival images showing Aljira’s journey: from the early days when a group of artists answered an ad for studio space in the Roseville section of Newark to its current home at 591 Broad Street. Aljira at 30 includes work by a representative selection of artists from the hundreds who have touched down and passed through and made Aljira the vital, far-reaching enterprise that it has become. 

Aljira was started by artists in 1983. It has grown and thrived over the last 30 years because of people. Hundreds of artists, curators, employees, educators, volunteers, and supporters have given their time, and their hard work to keep this unique art space going. We can reimagine Aljira as a social sculpture, as an artwork in and of itself that brings people together in creative ways to build community, and shape society. It has always been about people, and not bricks and mortar. 

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Bisa Washington, “St. Clementine’s Traveling MOJO Emporium - We Got Hope”, 2008, 10 x 12, mixed media

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"5 Days in July", two-channel installation

First shown as a double-channel video installation by Chuck Schultz and Esther Podemski at Aljira in 2007, 5 Days in July revisits the 1967 Newark Riots, an important cataclysmic moment in American history. It’s now again on view as part of Aljira at 30, Dream and Reality. This civil disturbance began when African-American cab driver and musician John W. Smith was arrested, beaten and dragged into the Fourth Precinct for a minor traffic infraction. This action triggered rebellion among the African-American community that spread throughout Newark. To quell the unrest, government officials mobilized the New Jersey State Police and National Guard.

At the conclusion of the rebellion, there were 26 dead and approximately 1,000 injured, 1,500 arrests, and $10 million in property damage. The “Newark Riots” represents one of the earliest civil disturbances among the more than 160 rebellions that occurred during that long hot summer. 

In 1983, 16 years later, when a group of artists, (Victor L. Davson, Sietze Frankfort, Carl E. Hazlewood, Rafael Sánchez, Elizabeth Seaton, and Fausto Sevila) that would become the founding members of Aljira ­– answered an ad for space in the Roseville section of Newark, the ghosts of 67’ still loomed heavily over the city. Newark looked like it had just been through a war. Buildings were in ruin, and the community was raw, and disconnected.

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Curators Okwui Enwezor and Carl E. Hazlewood in the early days

Artists and co-founders Carl E. Hazlewood and Victor L. Davson framed Aljira’s curatorial focus in the earlier years. In 1993, Aljira was selected by the Federal Advisory Committee on International Exhibitions to organize the United States’ representation at the IV Bienal Internacional de Pintura in Cuenca, Ecuador. For the Bienal de Cuenca Carl organized Current Identities: Recent Paintings in the United States. The exhibition was so successful that it travelled after the Bienal de Cuenca to ten additional countries and 12 cities in Central and South America. 

When we started, we didn’t plan how things would turn out. It was an ongoing revelation from one achievement to the next. For me, it was great to work with other artists. I was always interested in working with others and Aljira gave me the opportunity. Because of our cosmopolitan background, as immigrants from Guyana, Victor and I did not have the same built-in social and cultural barriers many others had within the American context. The character of our organization reflected our own personal background: multi-racial, multi-cultural and inclusive.

Aljira at 30, Dream and Reality looks back, but also looks forward. We accomplished so much in a short time!  In ten years, we went from doing a children’s mural project to organizing a prize-winning exhibition for an international Bienal. It has been very satisfying to look over all the materials in the archival ephemera section: the organization lives and breathes there.  

– Carl E. Hazlewood

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Cicely Cottingham, Light Skinned Woman with Bare Fleshy Arms from the Flags Series, 2009, acrylic on vellum

Cicely Cottingham is an artist/painter. Her work was showcased in Aljira’s second exhibition. In 1991 she and Victor L. Davson co-founded the revenue generating enterprise, Aljira Design which, by 2004, provided over 40% of Aljira’s operating budget and helped to facilitate Aljira’s development into a “Major Arts Institution”, a designation of the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.

Cottingham served as Aljira Design’s Art Director from 1996 to 2009. As a co-curator of “Aljira at 30”, Cicely has played an integral role in assembling the exhibition’s ephemera, sifting through three decades of Aljira’s program material and photographs. 

Wading through the many storage boxes triggered so many memories of wonderful, as well as difficult moments. It also reminded me of what a resource Aljira has grown to be for Newark, specifically, and the art community at large. I’m very proud to have played a role in this adventure.

– Cicely Cottingham

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Jayson Keeling, The Marked Man, 2011/printed 2014, archival pigment print, Photographer: Andy Brown 

“Aljira is really a unique space.” says artist and cultural producer, Jaret Vadera. “It is more like an incubator, or a conduit. It’s been a platform for tons of artists, curators, and writers, from Jayson Keeling to Bisa Washington to Renee Green to Fred Wilson to Eathon Hall to Rocio Aranda-Alvarado to Edwin Ramoran to Chitra Ganesh to Amiri Baraka. Bad ass, hardcore artists have come through here. It’s not a place for dead, stagnant art. It’s charged with energy, tension and contradictions which is what art should be.”

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Victor L. Davson, Dub Factor: Heroes – George Benson, 2013, acrylic and black rice on treated LP vinyl record album cover

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Amiri Baraka, 2013, New Jersey Poet Laureate Family Reading at Aljira, Photographer: Akintola Hanif 

Chief Curator for the exhibition, Margaret M. O’Reilly and curator of Fine Art at the New Jersey State Museum sees Aljira at 30 as an important moment in New Jersey’s history and the Arts. “Aljira has been agile in their response to changing cultural and societal issues, all the while maintaining a humanist ethos,” she says. “Through its commitment to bridging racial, cultural and ethnic barriers, the Center enlightens not just the arts community, but the local region it serves. Through exhibitions, programs, workshops and outreach, Aljira provides cultural services to the underserved and allows these communities to understand that the arts are not elitist, but a natural form of expression for all people.  It offers art as something more than simply an aesthetic experience, but a vital component in individual and community life.” 

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Dulce Pinzón, Catwoman is Minerva Valencia, from Puebla, who works as a nanny in New York.  She sends home $400 dollars a week, 2005-10, From the Superheroes Series, c-print on sintra

Aljira at 30, Dream and Reality features work by the following artists: Manuel Acevedo, Derrick Adams, David Ambrose, Amiri Baraka, Hugo Bastidas, Miriam Beerman, Frank Bowling, Judith Brodsky, Willie Cole, Cicely Cottingham, Roy Crosse, Victor Davson*, Efrain de Jesus, Dahlia Elsayed, Ming Fay, Chitra Ganesh, Jerry Gant, Grace Graupe Pillard, Renée Green, Carl E. Hazlewood*, Marion Held, Janet Henry, Aubrey J. Kauffman, Jayson Keeling, Estella Lackey, Mel Leipzig, Shaun Leonardo, Norman Lewis, James Little, Hew Locke, Donald Locke, Al Loving, Franc Palaia, Dulce Pinzón, Freddy Rodriguez, Kevin Sampson, Rafael Sánchez*, Elizabeth Seaton*, Fausto Sevila*, Danny Simmons, Helen M. Stummer, Mickalene Thomas, Mary Valverde, Bisa Washinghton, Florence Weisz*, Philemona Williamson, Chuck Schultz and Esther Podemski. (*Founding Artists)

The exhibition is on view from March 29 through September 28, 2014. An opening reception will be held on Sunday, March 30th at the New Jersey State Museum from 1pm to 4pm.

The New Jersey State Museum is located at 205 West State Street, Trenton. The Museum is open Tuesday – Sunday, 9 am to 4:45 pm; closed Mondays and all State Holidays.  Suggested admission is $5 for adults. For directions and more information visit www.statemuseum.nj.gov or www.aljira.org.  

Listen: New Jersey Poet Laureate Family Reading with Amiri Baraka and Friends, hosted by Jim Haba, Founding Director of the Geraldine Dodge Poetry Festival.

Featured on this recording: Victor L. Davson, Aljira, a Center for Contemporary Art Executive Director, Amina Baraka, Anne Marie Macari, Gerald Stern, and Imamu Amiri Baraka. Recorded in Newark, New Jersey on September 6, 2013 at Aljira. (c)