Brooklyn’s Nostrand Avenue, one of the boroughs most alluring and vibrant mishmashes of Jewish and West Indian cultures, is an American gem. Along the packed Crown Heights thoroughfare, one can see (among a zillion other confluences of culture), Hasids hurrying by Caribbean restaurants, while a mouthwatering scent of Thai-style fried fish mingles with the Dominican-style pork next door; elsewhere, colorful murals adorn more than a few walls, and church-fronts blare soul music from shabby little radios.
This scene—and the cultural expressions therein—serves as the conceptual basis for Brooklyn: Juxtaposition, a new exhibition at Repair the World, a Brooklyn-based social justice advocacy group “rooted in Jewish values.” The exhibition’s subject matter—ways in which overlapping identities define a community and its inhabitants—is described by curator Aimee Rubensteen as “simultaneously obvious and yet not spoken about enough.”
Running through August 14, Brooklyn: Juxtaposition, which is funded through a UJA-Federation grant, showcases the work of twelve local artists meditating on race and identity in Crown Heights; the huge Brooklyn neighborhood is home to both 770 Eastern Parkway, the world headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, and the hub for a plethora West Indian populations.
The desired experience for Thursday’s opening night was “opt in,” said Rubensteen. The evening began when each artist created a note—be it a quick doodle, a question, or an observation—then passed along to an attendee who could then choose to add to it (or not), before handing it off to someone else nearby. Throughout the night, every inch of the notes was filled, forcing people (tattooed hipsters and local art lovers alike) to add their takes in the margins. Some wrote about their reactions to the artwork; others expressed hopes and doubts about their own overlapping identities. One note read: “This woman just shined her bright beautiful smile at me and I remembered, ‘oh yeah, I’m alive.’ ”
From the very beginning, this activity set the mood for Rubensteen’s vision in which she wanted to bring out “participants, not just observers” who, together, could “challenge the conventions of galleries.”
For months, Rubensteen put together a group of artists she’d met by scouring local galleries, through a minyan at Repair the World, and by simply living in Brooklyn. And the results are fascinating, an effect that unfolded more and more as the evening forged on.
What I thought were two pictures of total darkness actually, upon closer examination, depicted a late night subway with barely perceptible figures in the windows. Another piece, a short documentary, contrasted the local black and Hasidic communities, simply by showing members young and old expounding on their love for their community and their hopes for the future. In another piece, a white button-down shirt encased in plaster made the case for the similarities between the vast array of Brooklynites from different backgrounds that don that uniform daily.
One piece in particular stood out. Elke Reva Sudin’s painting Joseph in Exile (which, coincidentally, features Tablet’s very own, MaNishtana), is among the first pieces to greet the attendees. Sudin said that her piece was part of a larger series about “owning your culture,” called “We Are Patriarchs.” It depicts “contemporary Jews as Biblical figures,” explained Sudin, who said she was ecstatic when Rubensteen approached her for the exhibition. “I feel close to Jews of color in our community,” Sudin said.
As attendees meandered around the gallery, taking in the artwork, Rubensteen said that she hoped people would “understand each other by looking at art with a slower and more conscious vision,” a practice that she sees as increasingly devalued. Afterword, as the wine and cheese was cleared away and people started to file out of the gallery, one only had to look around to see that a Brooklyn juxtaposition, an intermingling, was taking place right there on the street.