Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A (Not Just) Visual Taste of Northern Manhattan


Barely two years old, the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance (NoMAA) has recently expanded its offices to include a small gallery which features Aqui! (Here!), an art show in which fifteen young artists display their work. Although the collection spans a variety of media, the inspiration for all the pieces comes from the artists’ daily lives, and it is required that they live above 155th street in order to participate. The resulting assortment provides the viewer with a deeper understanding of what it is like to live in the Washington Heights/Inwood (WaHI)area.

NoMAA arose from the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, a not-for-profit organization created during the Clinton years to stimulate the area’s economic and cultural development. With the additional support of the Hispanic Federation, the Alliance was born in September of 2007; its mission is to promote the arts in this densely artist-populated part of the city. In its short history, NoMAA has already sponsored nearly one-hundred up-and-coming artists and brought numerous well-known ones—Lin-Manuel Miranda and Julia Alvarez among them—to speak about their work. “We are trying to serve this community,” said Sandra Garcia Bentancourt, Executive Director and CEO of the Alliance. A recent expansion has allowed NoMAA to host a gallery in which young artists are able to display their pieces.

Aqui! includes a wide variety of media and deals with an even wider range of topics. Niccolo Cataldi’s Annunciation and Don Quixote, composed of found objects, elicit the forms of Virgin Mary and Don Quixote while conserving a strong urban undertone. 2 vueltas por NYC has a similar feel; through colors and textures that allude to street art, Rider Urena’s work captures the feel of the typical New York forgotten side street.

Some of the pieces deal with more universal social issues: Jessica Lagunas’s Para verte mejor, Para besarte mejor, and Para acariciarte mejor—a three-hour collection of digital video performances—showcase the extreme ends women must go to in order to achieve so-called beauty. In the course of her work, she uses a complete tube of mascara, a tube of lipstick, and a bottle of nail polish. Through repeated applications of the makeup she exaggerates the ritual of beautification to the point of repugnance.

The Hispanic influence in the WaHI is not lost in the show, however. Although initially sparse, the Latino feel of the show increases as one delves further into the gallery and reaches the shows largest piece: Hector Canogne’s Intersections. The installation fully occupies NoMAA’s back room with references to Northern Manhattan’s famed chimichurri (Dominican concoction of fried meat, not to be confused with the Argentine-Uruguayan sauce of the same name) stands, including an interactive map through which one can hear the vendors talk about their trade, a container full of used fat, and anagrammed versions of the stand’s signs. The piece caricaturizes a deeply-ingrained aspect of Hispanic New York. On a similar note, Roni Mocan’s mural, Culpa—created entirely in Spanish—explores the public obsession with ascribing blame.

The exhibition, curated by Rocío Aranda-Alvarado, includes also works by Andrea Arroyo, Alta Berri, Lucho Capellán, Florencio Gelabert, Anthony Gonzalez, Maggie Hernandez, Dionis Ortiz, Frank Polanco, Rojelio Reyes Rodriguez, and Chinitas Yon.

While the show’s pieces may seem disjointed at first, upon closer analysis they reveal a deep sense of the WaHI feel. Most of the pieces are not obviously Hispanic. Most of the pieces aren’t obviously anything in particular, but neither is this region. Walking through NoMAA’s headquarters, one gets an underlying sense of Latin roots mixed with universal social pressures and a cosmopolitan way of life. Northern Manhattan is part of the Big Apple but it is one step removed, whether it be by a longer subway ride, an increased exposure to parks, or by its unique cultural blend—an idea which Aqui! successfully brings forth.

Running until December 30th. #3, 178 Bennett Avenue, Mon-Fri 11 am-5pm. For more information, call 212-568-4396 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting            212-568-4396      end_of_the_skype_highlighting or email

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