I really like the elevators in Riverside Church. There’s little foot traffic and rarely any congestion, so my rides down from the fourth floor—where the Spectator offices reside—down to the entrance level, are normally quick, solitary, and uninterrupted. Today, though, the elevator stops three times. Ding! A woman, cradling her purse like a baby, scurries in with four friends. Ding! A family of three, downed in matching deep-blue satin and magenta velvet, flood through the doors. Ding! We stampede out into the assembly hall where a jazz ensemble greets us.
It’s February 18, and Riverside Church is currently housing the Harlem Fine Arts Show (HFAS). A four-day event, HFAS makes two of the church’s floors play host to the largest traveling African Diasporic art show in the United States. The first HFAS was held at the Harlem Armory in 2009, with less than a thousand visitors. Now in its ninth annual iteration here at Riverside Church, across the street from Columbia’s department of religion and our Institute of African Studies, HFAS’s attendance has multiplied 15-fold. Yet, I don’t see another Columbia student that I recognize in attendance.
Chatter from each station bubbles over into the middle of the space (the artists are set up along the walls), and I complete one, two, three, four circles through the exhibitions. German poet Hermann Hesse said we don’t travel in circles but rather in spirals upwards towards enlightenment, and so every walk I take through the show takes me closer to some wisdom. Indeed, the experience lends one key insight: My predisposition for categorization finds little satisfaction here. The art spawns endless strings of “ands,” for I see flowers for genitalia, buttons for hair, clay for faces, and art intertwined with science and politics and music and pop culture. All of the art, though, centers around black empowerment.
For Cary Michael—whose work is featured at the show—art begets activism. His canvas features a portrait of Donald Trump against a background of posters from Black Lives Matter marches: “Don’t Shoot,” Let Them In: No #MuslimBan,” “I can’t breathe!” A black superhero from Michael’s other work, Sethemba, swarms Trump’s face. A description underneath the art reads, “Sethemba realizes that he must call upon his Swallowtail butterfly to unleash a Highly Optimistic and Powerfully Efficient (H.O.P.E.) attack on C.H.U.M.P. in hopes to eliminating him from office.”
Other artists find themselves in their work. One of Daryl Myntia Daniels’ drawings showcases a woman—depicted by her face and afro—contoured with purple pen lines. The woman’s eyes are fierce and electrifying. Daniels uses gel and ballpoint pen for their copper reflection, which reminds her of electrical signals being sent to the brain and the “spiritual journey of self-love.” Daniels, who has grappled with insecurities regarding her complexion, hopes her work will inspire other young black women to celebrate their skin tone. Her struggle is not my own, but her drawings nonetheless invoke something acutely visceral within me that I can not distinguish.
This is my first time attending an art show, and as I meander through the two floors, my stomach feels jittery: I don’t know the difference between oil painting and water painting; I haven’t owned colored pencils in over a decade; I nearly failed art class in third grade. But the gears of time grind away faithfully, and slowly the realization creeps on me that no one cares if I don’t know the canvas, or if I can’t identify the brush technique. Appreciation of art can be technical; it doesn’t have to be. As an Asian, STEM student at Columbia University, I, too, can find beauty and meaning at an art show celebrating the African diaspora. Like many of my peers, I seek knowledge from text and classroom discussions, but maybe I’ve been overlooking the educational value of experience. And in this building—one of many in Columbia’s vicinity with cultural significance—my conversations prove surprisingly didactic.
Riverside Church itself is a landmark. On April 4, 1967, it was here that Martin Luther King voiced his opposition to the Vietnam War. In 1987, this building housed the funeral of Channing E. Phillips, the first African American to receive votes as a presidential nominee at a Democratic National Convention. Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan spoke here after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Riverside is an architectural embodiment of HFAS, a “beacon” for black hope, Dion Clarke, founder of HFAS, explains. In fact, almost every artist I talk to alludes to the years of activism piled upon this historic backdrop as a stamp of pride on their respective work.
The art that is on display, in a building fertile with decades of sociopolitical advocacy, will be here for a weekend, but it will continue to live long after leaving Riverside. Kehli Woodruff, a speech and language pathologist, has come to HFAS with her daughter, Abigail, to buy a painting of a woman on the auction block. The woman’s face—turned away from view—looks outwards at a thickening cloudscape and angry, swelling waves; her naked body wears the moonlight with resignation.
Woodruff’s great-grandmother was the first person in her family line to not be a slave, and Woodruff thinks of herself as “one step away” from the subject of the painting. She is a Woodrow Wilson Fellow in policy studies who possesses degrees from Brown University, the University of Michigan, Mercy College, and Columbia University; yet, in the painted woman, Woodruff sees both herself and Abigail. The painting’s turbulence marks a period of enslavement, along with similar manifestations in Woodruff’s own life, centuries later. For her, art intertwines history—past with present, and places with people.
If time dilates when one moves at great velocities within Morningside—me in Butler flipping through textbooks at a hundred pages an hour, me frantically running from class to class, me scarfing down JJ’s burgers with alarming frequency and volume—do I lose synchronicity with the reality outside Columbia’s bubble? It’s only now that I myself realize the intertwinement of architecture with culture, canvas with politics, expression with reason, and student with surrounding.