The Direction of the Arts in Northern Manhattan
Delivered by Mike Fitelson at CulturarteÕs Symposium ŅPolitics: the Domincan Cultural Agenda in New YorkÓ
September 11, 2004
IÕd like to thank Dr. Jorge Pi–a and Karina Rieke for creating a location where art and culture can flourish in Northern Manhattan, reminding the city and world of the contributions that are being made by its residents, both permanent and part-time.
I first learned about Culturarte a couple of years ago when I saw the big banner that had the words Ņliterature, dance, theater, music, painting, photographyÓ written on it. I knew that they were doing something special that would help everyone in the community. Their name Š Culturate Š is one that has meaning in any language.
I have been a photographer for over 10 years, shooting in B&W for myself and in color professionally. I moved to Washington Heights about five years ago and have since become the editor of the local community newspaper, the Manhattan Times. Significantly, our paper is bilingual Š it is one of the only institutions that reaches both the English and Spanish-speaking populations living in Northern Manhattan.
And that is what I would like to talk about today Š how art can transcend language and culture to inform, educate, and entertain. This has to be the direction the arts takes in Northern Manhattan for us to create the biggest audience possible and to have the best chance of capturing what it means to be living in such a vibrant and culturally rich community.
Of course in the long run it would be best if we did speak the same language. I thank Rosa Salda–a for sharing my thoughts with you today. Last night Dr. Pi–a promised me next year this would be bilingual; I promise that in the future I will learn to speak for myself.
While I have lived up here for five years, I had always worked in other parts of the city until 2002 when I was unemployed. I did then what I always do when I have free time: I picked up my camera and started photographing Š in black and white, always in black and white Š where I lived.
What I found through the viewfinder was that there was magic in the world that I had been living in, but was never really a part of.
I made photographs of Fort Tryon Park that looked like the Yellow Brick Road in the Wizard of Oz. Photographs of the Cloisters that looked like the hidden dungeons of a far off castle. Photographs of children that looked like they had crawled out of tribal paintings. I discovered that living in Washington Heights and Inwood was like living in a fantasy.
I kept making photographs like this that explored this dream world and was happy. And people liked them. Even better a couple of people even bought them, which always makes an artist a little happier.
Then a month or so ago, I was at the Audubon Arts Festival in Inwood and I discovered I wasnÕt alone in how I saw the neighborhood as a land of magic. I saw a beautiful painting of the Bridge Tower Apartments, the very building that we sit in now, with a man on a donkey walking down the middle of the street.
What an incredible idea!
It so perfectly described how Washington Heights had become the home to many different cultures. ItÕs the same painting you can see in the hallway along with other examples of Jose Pe–aÕs work, paintings that Š like all great art Š do not need any words of explanation: they demonstrate to anyone who has lived in Northern Manhattan a new way of seeing and at the same time they allow the viewer to recognize a shared experience.
It was good for me to see that I wasnÕt alone in how I saw Northern Manhattan as a fantasy world. It was good for me to feel like I was part of a community.
As the arts scene grows in Northern Manhattan, there are more opportunities for audiences and artists to share experiences of living together in Northern Manhattan.
At United Palace Theater on Broadway and W. 175th Street, I saw dance performances by the Alvin Ailey troupe that chronicled the history of Africans in America, from the days of slavery through the Civil Rights to today. The strength of the performances made clear the dancersÕ intentions to the audience even if you didnÕt speak English.
ItÕs the same with the folokloric dance group at Alianza Dominicana, which can convey the rich traditions of the Dominican Republic to audiences that have never set foot in Quesqueya.
CooganÕs Restaurant on Broadway and W. 169th Street during the Uptown Arts Stroll in June, showcased paintings by artists of Russian descent who now live in Northern Manhattan, a community that numbers several thousand people. Most of these artists were great contributors to the arts in the former Soviet Union before they had to flee. Now they are making a contribution in America.
But the clearest example of how art can transcend cultural differences happened right here a few weeks ago. At another arts extravaganza conducted by Dr. Pi–a and Karina, I was invited to show some of my photos. I was very flattered, but I had no idea what to bring.
I decided to exhibit several photos from a series I did when I first moved to New York called NYme. NY Š big, me Š little.
The project is about how overwhelming it feels to move to New York, how the city in its size and importance makes you feel small and unimportant. To help depict that idea, the photos are experimental self-portraits, with reflections of myself, shadows of me, and details of my hands or feet or face.
I stood up in front of the audience, again with a translator, and explained my project the best I could. And I was surprised by how much the audience understood it and liked it.
A reporter with Listin Diario, Pedro Antonio Valdez, liked the work so much that he said he wanted to write a story about it.
I learned that the subject matter Š coming to New York Š resonates with so many people because so many people feel the same way towards the city. And it showed the audience that they had something in common with me Š someone who canÕt even explain to them his thoughts and feelings in his own words. This experience that crossed cultural differences would have never happened if I hadnÕt come to exhibit that day.
And that is why the direction the arts must take in Northern Manhattan is to be as inclusive as possible. We can learn so much through art, things that would remain assumptions and stereotypes without the interaction that art brings us. For this reason it is important for the arts to flourish in Northern Manhattan, in places like Culturarte and United Palace Theater, with groups like Artists Unite and Cine Teatro Musica, and at restaurants and cafes like CooganÕs, Cafˇ 7, Bleu Evolution, and many, many more. We must make everyone feel welcome at our artistic happenings and make sure that invitations are offered and accepted to take advantage of all that the artists of Northern Manhattan have to offer.