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“somebody/ anybody sing a black girl’s song… sing her song of life she’s been dead so long closed in silence so long she doesn’t know the sound of her own voice her infinite beauty” – Ntozake Shange

When I think of Urban Bush Women, this quote immediately comes to my mind. So much more than a dance troupe, the non-profit organization was founded in 1984 by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, and offers a female centric perspective to the untold stories and histories of the disenfranchised members of the African Diaspora. Using dance as a medium of self expression, the group uses the art form to express and expose issues of social justice and encourage engagement. Based in New York City, the award winning ensemble is internationally known and is heavy on the festival circuit.

Urban Bush Women performing Praise House.

Their core values really embrace community and confidence in oneself. They strive to uphold validating the individual, being a catalyst for social change, entering the community and co-creating stories, building trust through process, celebrating the movement and culture of the African Diaspora, and the importance of place. As a response to the needs of black culture and their surrounding community, Urban Bush Women have hit all the right notes.

Volunteers at a community service project sponsored by Urban Bush Women.

In addition to their unique choreography and multi-talented troop that sing, act, and dance in their amazing stage performances, the group is dedicated to outreach. Urban Bush Women has and monthly culture and community series in BK called Being Bushified, that offers community dance workshops. Their Summer Leadership Institute, is a ten day intensive allows the troop to connect with their fans and examine a pressing issue in the community. Through workshops offering dance, civic engagement, and dialogues and asset mapping, interested minds 18 and older can contribute to their movement and have a taste of performance. The Institute will be in New Orleans in 2012, more information available here. They take people of all levels, so even the most inexperienced dancer should feel inspire to participate!

Participants in the Summer Leaders Institute in New Orleans!

The real magic takes place when you experience their performance live. I first saw them perform when I was a little girl and was taken by the beauty in strength in the black women moving gracefully before my eyes. The choreography always draws you into their story, expressing the varied experiences and emotions of black womanhood. Some of their most famous performances Shelter, Soul Deep, Walking With Pearl, and the more recent piece, Body Talk are masterpieces in their own right. The newest generation of performers are impressive, with most current company members having joined in the past 5 years. In 2010, they were honored during their 25th anniversary when the U.S. Department of State asked them to inaugurate their cultural dance exchange program. They were one of three companies asked to participate. This is a testimony to the power of their art and ability to speak to people of all walks of life. These young women under the direction of the supportive and impressive staff are definitely a positive representation of the artistry of dance and a testimony to the strength and creative power of black women.

Performace of Zollar: Uncensored Dance Theater Workshop in 2010.

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The staff of SUPERFRONT in the BK Gallery.

This design organization came about in 2008 and has experimental gallery/labs in three cities already. Founder/Director Mitch McEwen was really interested in making the field of architecture more engaged and involved in its surrounding community. The group’s ground zero, SUPERFRONT BK, the group began putting on exhibitions in a gallery space geared towards the public. The non profit organization is focused on promoting architectural experimentation and interdisciplinary exchange. Many of the Brooklyn gallery’s projects have been praised by the forward thinkers within the profession, and SUPERFRONT has produced exhibition catalogs that are available for sale online.

SUPERFRONT collaboration to transform their public space.

The exhibits often feature radically experimental works by young designers that are built and exhibited on very limited budgets by the SUPERFRONT staff in collaboration with the artist. Each year the organization hosts designers-in- residence, and 2011 featured urban designer Manuel Avila Ochoa, culminating in his project Participatory Urbanism: Crown Heights. The project used a landscape urbanist’s approach to envision and rethink the residual spaces adjacent to the Franklin Avenue shuttle line. Avila involved the local community in his research and final exhibition, looking to create a common ground between constituents and residents while involving them in the conversation about public space. The project was one of ten selected visions for NYC honored at Urban Design Week 2011.

Invitation for Artist-in-reisdence Manuel Avila's Exhibition.

This is just one example of how SUPERFRONT’s work is making a difference. SUPERFRONT Detroit, spearheaded by SUPERFRONT member Chloe Bass has been working to re- imagine what the future of the city will hold. Their exhibition Detroit: A Brooklyn Case Study was a combination of art, architecture and documentary. SUPERFRONT released an RFP for a design intervention on a vacant lot site they owned, resulting in the LIGHT UP! Installation by artists Ellen Donnelly and David Karle. There was also a crowd-sourced documentary, SUPERtube, inviting residents to use YouTube as a communal think tank and create their own vision and proposal for how the city should change. Contributors were asked to pick one lot, block, or neighborhood in Detroit and create a 1 minute video based on SUPERFRONT prompt questions.

Light Up! Installation as part of the Detroit projects.

In 2009, SUPERFRONT LA began as an offshoot of the Brooklyn site, at the Pacific Design Center. The gallery produced exhibits here through August 2011. The LA portion of the operation hosted the traveling exhibit Detroit: A Brooklyn Case Study and curated Unplanned and Anthony Gross:Crime Scenes. Unplanned has an accompanying publication available for purchase on SUPERFRONT LA’s website.

Art installation at the LA Gallery.

Across all cities, SUPERFRONT is in your face and asking the hard questions. It is bringing the ideas of design, its process, and consequences direct to the constituents in affects the most. More impressive is this forward thinking group that features many young, female, minority designers making big things happen. Their work is definitely worth an in depth look and for those readers on the east coast, make a point to visit their Brooklyn Studio next time you are in the New York area, there seem to be some very exciting things happening there!

SUPERFRONT from Urban Omnibus on Vimeo.

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Selections from Gee's Bend artisans.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but a quilt is worth a thousand stories. The practice of quilting has been an important folk art for African Americans since before slavery ended. These story quilts were a way to tell narrative and record histories and employed weaving and textile techniques many blacks had retained from their African roots. These intricate tapestries were often created for slave owner’s homes. Quilting emerged as a known African American art form in the antebellum era influenced by traditional black art forms including: basket weaving, woodcarving, painting, pottery, and quilting. I find that interesting as all of these techniques are typically used to create everyday objects of common use. It reminds us that there is beauty in the things we see everyday and their very creation has a story to tell.

Harriet Powers Bible Quilt.

Since early quilts were often requested by whites using their own fabrics, the true art is in the way they were put together. Especially in the South, many slave women were trained in textile weaving. This was ironic, considering that in many African countries, weaving was a male dominated field. Much of our history of these practices are only known for biographies and first hand narratives remaining from this history and the skills that were passed down from generation to generation both orally and in the transfer of techniques. One of the few examples from this period that is Harriet Power’s Bible Quilt which can be viewed at the Smithsonian Institute. Powers was born into slavery in Georgia, and has been acknowledged for creating the best examples of 19th century quilting. Power’s style was applique and included panels depicting scenes that tell a story.  Some historians also believe slaves hid messages in quilt blocks to support the underground railroad.  Thus these symbols and stories had a shared message and served as a means of communication.

Quilt that employs the "string quilt" method using a variety of fabrics.

After Emancipation, many free black women found domestic work. Here the practice of quilting continued for practical reasons to create fabric coverings and reuse and re-purpose scraps around the house from garments, feed bags, and other textiles. This practice was called “string quilts” with various strips of fabrics being sewn together to make an intricate pattern. Few examples of this style remain from the period because they were in heavy use. Another technique for quilting is the pine burr quilt. In this method, overlapping triangles are used to create a 3D effect in a radiating pattern. This style was considered to be masterpiece style like applique quilts.

The women of Gee's Bend hard at work.

The Great Migration opened up career opportunities and quilting became more of a recreational activity for black women, especially in retirement. It became an activity that was celebrated in social organizations, church groups, and senior centers. This shift from necessity to pleasure has fostered in a new found love for the art form. Looking at the Gee’s Bend collective, this group of women quilt for their love of the production of their elaborate art pieces and the preservation of a historical technique. The Gee’s Bend quilters have established a community and organization around their shared passion and have reintroduced the current generation to the beauty of quilting.

Recent trends have included the deliberate inclusion of African imagery, fabrics, and influences to reference back to our ancestry. There is much debate over whether or not there is a unique style to African American quilting that is similar or stems from textile patterns and styles from Africa. This theory becomes difficult to prove as there are few surviving examples of the work. Also, since quilting techniques were often shared across races in the South, it is not easy to determine the race of a quilter if their piece is found. Still the tradition remains in modern times as a nostalgic reminder of our past. Modern black artists like Charlotte Lewis, Erika Rae Allen, Chris Clark, Willie Birch, Donnette Cooper, Roland Freeman, and Faith Ringgold have all been influenced in their own work by the tradition of quilting and the techniques it employs.

Praise by Chris Clark.

Regardless, quilting still represents a period of our history as blacks and physical creations that came of this practice that reflect a level of craftsmanship and artistry that can be traced back to our early history in America. What I see most visible from the art of quilting is a physical collage that tells a story not just in its pattern and image but in the craft used in its production. I see the results of its strong influence daily in my travels through black neighborhoods, from accessories and garments that use quilted patterns and African fabrics to the intricate murals and panels we paint on buildings and walls. I am sure the art of quilting will be something we still talk about years from now, because ingrained in black culture is the creative practice of finding new and artistic ways to share our stories with the world.

Images from Faith Ringgold's Tar Baby.


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