Mother, Bethel, Harlem, USA: An Interactive Celebration of Harlem

Thomas Allen Harris with his work titled A Family Album at the Harlem Stage, on view at Mother, Bethel, Harlem, USA. Photo by Natalie Conn

Thomas Allen Harris introduces Hunter IMA MFA student Janis Mahnure at the opening reception of Mother, Bethel, Harlem, USA. Photo by Natalie Conn

Mother, Bethel, Harlem, USA, a multimedia exhibition produced from an innovative in-gallery summer course led by artist and filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris in the Hunter East Harlem Gallery, opened August 30, 2018.

The collaboration between Harris and his students from Hunter College’s MFA program in Integrated Media Arts (IMA) brings together never-before-exhibited images Harris took in 1987 at James Baldwin’s funeral, the students’ creative explorations into their own archives, crowd-sourced images and stories, and public programs to give shape to Harlem’s history from the perspectives of its communities.

Suns of Harlem: An Ode to Mr. James Baldwin by Thomas Allen Harris. Vinyl on glass, 100″ x 80.5″, 2018. Photo by Natalie Conn

Chosen by ArtNews as a pick of the week art event, the interactive exhibit will run until Saturday, October 6th, with a Theater of the Oppressed workshop led by Gail Burton on September 27th, a full-day student-organized symposium on September 29th, and a special conversation between Thomas Allen Harris and artist, organizer, and Hunter College IMA MFA alum Betty Yu on Wednesday, October 3rd.

In the gallery: LEAP students from New Haven visit the class to learn about archiving. Photo by Natalie Conn

The exhibition builds on Harris’ long history of combining art with activism in a participatory practice that delves into the intersections between personal narratives and social movements. The special collaboration with Hunter IMA MFA students was preceded by a two-day seminar Harris taught in the Fall of 2017 at the invitation of Professor Andrew Lund, director of Hunter’s IMA MFA program.

Planning the Gallery. Photo by Natalie Conn

In the gallery: Students pass around guest lecturer Hiram Maristany’s photograph. Photo by Natalie Conn

The work the students shared at the end of the seminar – based on Digital Diaspora Family Reunion methodologies – came together “like a festival – people did art projects, screenings, performances, all kinds of cultural expression using the digital diaspora methods,” Harris recalls. “I just thought, the work is so strong and these students are so dedicated and smart, I wanted their work to be seen in a larger context.”

For Mother, Bethel, Harlem, USA, Harris engaged Hunter IMA MFA students in DDFR’s methodologies again, this time culminating in an exhibition with public programming. For Harris, who explored his personal Harlem history in his pieces, particularly his relationship with First AME Church: Bethel, the site of his family’s ancestral spiritual home, the exhibit represented a kind of homecoming. For the students – Chris J. Gauthier, Patri González Ramírez, Cynthia Groya, Janis Mahnure, Melissa Montero, Allison Shyer, and Jacqueline Wade – it offered a new opportunity to reflect on their own homelands and personal journeys.

Their resulting projects combined aesthetic objects with cultural memory, incorporating sculpture, photography, film, and digital technology in their installations.

Spiritual Activism in East Harlem by Jacqueline Wade. Photo by Natalie Shmuel

Memorias de Mi Familia by Melissa Montero. Photo by Natalie Conn.

Several students explored their already-deep ties to the East Harlem community through the work they developed through the course: Melissa Montero created an installation of portraits, photographs, and archival footage that honored her family’s origins in Puerto Rico and their migration to New York City in the 1950s, while Jacqueline Wade focused on the spirituality and activism inherent to the East Harlem community and its churches, creating a multimedia altar “looking at the present into the future”.

A visitor contributes to Chris J. Gauthier’s audio booth in his piece, Substitutions. Photo by Natalie Shmuel

Other students found themselves considering their relationship with Harlem for the first time. “I’m very conscious of the fact that I’m not from Harlem, but I live here.” said Chris J. Gauthier. At first he wasn’t sure how to make a site-specific project stemming from his personal family archive. “But I actually found a lot of connections between my family and Thomas’s archives and stories from the archives I went through at Centro and the Schomburg Center.” He ultimately remixed DDFR’s audio archives into his piece, inviting visitors to listen – and to contribute their own voices – in an audio recording booth.

Third year IMA MFA student Janis Mahnure approached her archive as a way to rethink her self-narrative. “Looking at pictures of my mother, I realized that one of the main narratives that’s changed for me throughout my life is my relationship to my Bengali heritage. Growing up, I was really ashamed of my culture, and particularly how my mother embodied that culture,” Mahnure recalls. Growing up, Mahnure imagined distancing herself from the visual cultural markers of her mother’s traditional Bengali clothing by wearing a big white dress at her wedding. That relationship has since shifted: when Mahnure got married this year, she wore a traditional Bengali red dress, honoring her mother and Bengali culture. A piece of that dress is now part of her installation American Bengali, an invitation for viewers to tangibly experience her archive and the complexity of her ever-evolving cultural identity.

American Bengali by Janis Mahnure. Photo by Natalie Conn

AÑORANZA by Patri González Ramírez. Photo by Natalie Conn

Mahnure’s experience was echoed in that of her classmates’ who, as they worked with Harris in creatively engaging in their family archives in new ways, were able to reframe their family histories and connections to Harlem’s history. Mother, Bethel, Harlem, USA encapsulates these transforming relationships and offers the possibility of something more: a transformation through family archives that extends beyond gallery walls.

“Images speak to us,” Harris says. “Archives are a language. If you don’t use it, you lose it.” Mother, Bethel, Harlem, USA is an effort to find and speak that language, and at Hunter East Harlem Gallery, it is very much alive.

L-R: Chris J. Gauthier, Thomas Allen Harris, Arden Sherman, Janis Mahnure, Allison Shyer,Patri González Ramírez, Melissa Montero. Photo by Natalie Conn

Mother, Bethel, Harlem, USA is on display at Hunter East Harlem Gallery through October 6, 2018.

The exhibition is made possible by generous support from Hunter College’s IMA MFA Department; the Office of the President, Hunter College; New York City Council; and by Joan Lazarus. Organized by Arden Sherman, Allison Shyer, Helen Chu and Natalie Conn.

View more photos of the exhibit on our Flickr page

Thomas Allen Harris has taught and organized around the importance of family photographs through Digital Diaspora Family Reunion (DDFR) since 2009, his transmedia project that builds and celebrates accessible community archives through workshops, performances, and digital media centered around the family photographic album, which is now turning into a public television series titled Family Pictures USA.


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