Posted March 14th 2016 at 11:39 am by
in Art

Q&A: Socially Engaged Artists Discuss Community Engagement

In 2015, Harlem-based Elvira Clayton joined the Laundromat Project as a commissioned artist. Blending oral history, sculpture installation, and craftwork aesthetic, she strives for her community-based art practice to reflect the lived experiences of the communities she creates with. Her current project Dioko, explores Harlem’s Little Senegal neighborhood and its connections to the African-American community.

The NY-based Laundromat Project (LP), led by Kemi Ilesanmi, works with artists to connect to and amplify creativity. To the LP, creativity is fundamental to community life and is a renewable resource. Their mechanisms for supporting community engaged artists and Clayton’s practice provides valuable lessons for planners about the art of community engagement.

Elvira Clayton Commissions1

Elvira Clayton with Dioko project. Photo Credit: Laundromat Project.

Q: Kemi, can you share a little bit of background on the Laundromat Project?

A: The LP started in earnest 10 years ago. The idea from the very beginning was to connect to and amplify creativity in communities of color amongst people living on modest incomes. Risë Wilson, the founder, had grown up in Black Philly and was interested in those types of neighborhoods and had landed in Bed-Stuy.

The laundromat is both a physical and metaphorical space. The attraction originally was that it is a space that people use, that has untapped potential. People are looking for something to do beside spinning wheels. You can catch people off guard and it is incredibly diverse. Laundromats are very particular to places like Philly and NY where different classes, genders, races and ethnicities come together. In some other cities laundromats might not be the space; it might be something else. In NY there are about 2600 Laundromats.

Q: Elvira, how did you begin focusing on collecting oral stories?

A: I moved to NY about a decade ago now. I came to NY to focus on being an artist for a year or two, I landed in Harlem and continue to live and work here. Very quickly my work started to move out of my studio and become this community based practice. For me growing up, Harlem was this mystical place of the Harlem renaissance and Langston Hughes. When I moved, I realized very quickly that I was a part of this history and there were all these little villages within the village of Harlem.

So I started blending all the mediums I love working in – photography, sculpture, this thing that I have for talking to strangers and pulling stories out of people and about four years ago started creating what I call my community magic sound boxes. Instantly someone referred to them as oral history stories. I would work with a specific community in Harlem and collect stories and collectively we’d build a structure.

My most recent project is with the Senegalese community in Harlem. There is a long history of a Senegalese immigrant community in Harlem. I always saw them and knew they were around but I didn’t know who they were. I recently married a man from Senegal so then I could see who I saw everyday but didn’t really understand.

Q: Kemi, how does LP navigate entering, building and exiting communities?

A: When the Laundromat Project is supporting an artist to do a full project, they either live in or are otherwise invested in the community. One of the critiques of doing community engaged art is about parachuting in. Like, I just heard about you, I’m coming in and going to get my thing.

Living in a place begins to suggest that you have stakes there. You care about what happens on your corner because it is your corner.

Even for artists who are incredibly familiar—have lived in Harlem or Bed-Stuy for 10 years or 20 years or even their whole life—being able to ask people to do something different, that isn’t their priority requires a certain level of connection, respect and intentionality.

In one of our training workshops, the Urban Bush women talk about intentionality and being thoughtful and self reflective and catching yourself when you don’t get it right. It is lifelong learning so you might get it right today and get the exact same thing wrong tomorrow or try the thing you tried yesterday and it is a different context or a different person and it doesn’t work in the same way. So that level of self-awareness and self-criticality is important, whether it is a place you have been in your whole life or somewhere you have just arrived.

Q: Elvira, what were your strategies for entering, building with and exiting the Senegalese community in your most recent project?

A: Well you know, I thought I already had my “in” because my husband is from Senegal and I know a few people in the community and I have a few pictures from when I went to Senegal. But once again, you have this vision of how a thing is going to go and that is not necessarily true.

I really wanted to connect with elders and women in the community and that was difficult for me and it didn’t happen the way I wanted it to. One of the women that I spoke with teaches Wolof at Columbia, the primary language spoken in Senegal and Little Senegal. She said to me, it will be very difficult for you to connect with certain members of the community because this community is very clear about why they are here. They are here to work, to make money, to educate themselves and their families and to educate and support their families back home. And there is not a lot of space for anything else. Where does art fit into this? You will have to find a way to make all of that come together. It is about building that trust, not just them trusting you but you trusting them.

I remember the first workshop that I did with the Urban Bush women during my fellowship in 2011 they told this elaborate story about going to this picnic in New Orleans and going in and eating the food and dancing and having a great time. I thought it was a wonderful story. But the end of that story was they looked around them and the members of the community were sort of standing back thinking you have come in and taken over. You weren’t invited here. That was sort of a wake up call for them. They thought that they were bringing something fabulous to the community but that isn’t what this is about at all. This is about the community giving something fabulous. It is about respect, building trust.

In Little Senegal, in my project, what kept happening over and over again, especially with women in the community they would say, come back. Come back at 4. Come back next Tuesday at 3. They wanted to see if I was someone who kept my word, who could be trusted. Whenever they said come back, I would go. Sometimes I’d sit in a hair salon and it would take a while and we’d just laugh and talk and all of a sudden it felt good, to me, to them, and that is when people would start to open up.

Interview edited for length & clarity.

Post by Nse Umoh Esema. 

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