The COVID-19 pandemic has been relentless and deadly, but for a group of teenagers in the Bronx, it has also been a time of creative reflection and community engagement. The Bronx Museum of the Arts’ latest exhibit, What We Call Home, is a deeply personal curation put together by the Teen Council, a selective, paid after-school program for a dozen high school students to study and create art.
Featuring artworks by Sanford Biggers, Jamel Shabazz, and other New York City-based artists, mainly from the late 1980s, the exhibit is as much a commentary on race and injustice as it is an exploration of identity and belonging during an exceptionally challenging year. “Home is a familiar place where you can find comfort in your surroundings,” reads the exhibit’s sign. “During quarantine, home has also become a space to learn, grow, build, and rest. The artworks depict our cultures and communities as we see them.”
“The idea for the exhibit came about as Teen Council students and educators went through several artists and artworks, discussing them and selecting those they found most powerful. They chose a total of 16 works, including video, photography, and multimedia art, all displayed in the Museum’s main atrium.
The focus was to highlight the positive aspects of the community the students have known all their lives, capturing how dynamically the city has shifted—and stayed the same—over the decades.
“We picked these specific pieces because we felt the same connection of community,” said Noemi Polanco, a high school senior and member of the Teen Council.
“One of the paintings of a street corner made us all nostalgic, because it reminded us of the stores in our neighborhoods growing up,” she said, adding that graffiti was central to the imagination of the Bronx.
The exhibit’s most prominent artwork—the first one you see when you walk through the main doors —is titled Afropick, by Sanford Biggers, who also has his own solo show at the museum. A six-foot tall woodcut piece in black and white, it shows a clenched fist in a Black Power salute, extending down into tree roots that also resemble dreadlocks.
Other works on display include Shabazz’s photographs of young men on street corners in 1980, and selected lithographs on Black runaways from the early 1990s.
Located between Highbridge and Melrose in the South Bronx, the Museum has been vital in showcasing the rich history of the Bronx. Today, more than a third of the population in the area has less than a high school diploma. The Teen Council, founded in 2005, works to shift the compounded problems that youth face in the Bronx and beyond. The program provides a small stipend to help those who would otherwise have difficulty attending, and has recently opened up to students across the five boroughs. In addition to museum curation, students create zines, videos, and other art about issues most pressing to them.
“My favorite part of the program was definitely the zine,” said Lydia Spencer, a student in the fall cohort. Titled “24 Reasons Why My Mom Fears For My Place In The World,” the zine that her group produced features beautiful, evocative artwork about gun violence, Black Lives Matter, police brutality, and racism.
“I learned to branch out and work with other artists collectively,” Spencer said. “I felt accomplished and proud to have my name on something so great.”
In a typical year, the program gives students a physical safe space to hang out and make friends, discuss modern art, and work with video equipment in a media lab. But this past year, the class was run entirely remotely, including the curation of the exhibit. Without the challenges of commuting to the Museum twice a week, more students were able to participate, and the program’s goals pivoted closer towards art education in lieu of technical skill building.
Funded in part by the New York City Council, the Bronx Museum engages in lots of community-oriented programming. “We try to make the museum a space where people—particularly youth—can feel creative and empowered, where they know they can have a voice and a viewpoint,” said Nell Klugman, Educations Program Manager at the Bronx Museum.
“With so much racism and the stress of growing up in a racist society, we want the teens to have the opportunity to discuss their ideas honestly, and to see their ideas as valuable and themselves as effective agents of change,” Klugman said. “The Museum is a place for them to speak about issues that are important to them, to celebrate all of the cultural wealth that already exists within our community—and to give it a strong platform.”