The Africa in the Bronx

Walk through Mount Hope or Mott Haven and the shops are easy to miss. But look carefully and there they are: in marketplaces wedged between Dominican barbershops and in fabric stores tucked under elevated subway tracks, immigrants from West Africa selling the sights and smells of home. Smoked fish from Gambia, vibrant Ghanaian cloths, spices imported from Nigeria—although it may not be obvious, the borough’s growing African communities are making their mark on culture in the Bronx.

This month, to draw attention to a population that is largely underrepresented in the city’s cultural life, the Longwood Arts Project and the Bronx Council on the Arts have launched Bronx:Africa, a multi-disciplinary art exhibit that explores the African influence on the borough. The organizers and artists hope the show will celebrate some of the Bronx’s newest arrivals.

The Bronx is home to a growing population of African immigrants, many of whom have arrived within the last ten years. Between 2007 and 2014, the number of West African immigrants in the borough increased by more than 60 percent, according to census data collected by Queens College.

Some of the immigrants have been priced out of Manhattan, while others have come directly from their home countries, searching for work or fleeing the recent Ebola epidemic. While African immigrants make up roughly four percent of foreign-born New Yorkers, according to a 2013 Department of City Planning report, they represent 10 percent of the immigrants in the Bronx.

Holly Reed, a sociology professor at Queens College who studies the demography of African immigrants in the U.S., said that while New York has long been home to immigrants from Nigeria and Ghana, the city has seen a more recent influx of people from other parts of West Africa as well, particularly Francophone countries like Senegal and Mali. Reed said that part of the increase has to do with U.S. immigration policies that favor immigrants from underrepresented African countries. “Once people have a foothold, they can bring family members through family reunification programs,” Reed explained.

At A & A African Market in Mount Hope, the newer arrivals shop alongside Ghanaians who have been in the neighborhood for decades. Packages of partially cooked corn dough, known as Kenkey, are arranged near boxes of Cheerios, and the shelves are filled with mason jars of imported spices and seeds, giving the shop a faintly sweet aroma. Against the back wall, thick slabs of smoked fish are stacked floor to ceiling in a refrigerated case.

“Every day I meet somebody who just moved out here,” said Mamoudou Waggeh, an employee at the store who came to New York from Gambia five years ago. Waggeh said he has met newcomers from Senegal, Mali, and his home country in the neighborhood.

A few blocks from the Longwood Art Gallery at Hostos Community College, where the Bronx:Africa exhibit is housed, another African market caters to immigrants in the South Bronx. At Gold Coast Trading Company, African immigrants come to stock up on the foods they miss from home. But the store also functions as a sort of informal marketplace, explained manager Deandra Harris, with regulars coming to sell their homemade cookies and imported cloths as well as to shop for groceries. If the store does not have an item customers are looking for, employees will ask other customers to bring it back to the U.S. on their next trip home.

Many of the artists whose work is featured in the Bronx:Africa exhibit can identify with the idea of belonging to two different places. Imo Imeh grew up in a Nigerian Ibibio community in the Bronx and said that the intersection between his Nigerian and American heritage is something he explores in his artwork. His piece at the exhibit depicts the story of an African-American woman who was killed by a lynch mob in the early 1900s and includes references to an Ibibio ritual.

Deirdre Scott, the Executive Director of the Bronx Council on the Arts, came up with the idea for the exhibit three years ago as a way to reach out to immigrant communities. “This is one of the best ways to welcome them and celebrate their presence here,” she said. “I don’t want people in the borough to feel estranged.”

Although he is not from West Africa, Hakim Mutlaq, a photographer whose work is featured in the exhibit, can also relate. He moved to the Bronx from Trinidad and Tobago in 1969 at the age of 14. “People in New York are often ignorant of the immigrant communities around them,” he said. “In the New York perspective, some people don’t even know who their neighbors are.”

Mutlaq’s photo in the exhibit shows a young girl outside the funeral for eight children and a mother from Mali who died in a Bronx fire in 2007. He said that in New York, “it’s usually on a solemn occasion, a tragedy or a festival, that people acknowledge immigrant communities.” He hopes the exhibit will draw attention to African immigrants in the Bronx and give viewers “the ability to look through somebody else’s eyes.”

The Bronx:Africa exhibit will be at Longwood Art Gallery (450 Grand Concourse) until May 4, 2016.