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Newark artists, thriving amid crisis and catharsis
Cesar Melgar, who photographed Newark during the worst of the pandemic, shows pages from his zine "The First Three Months," in Newark, N.J., in June 2020. “I wanted something that people could hold in their hands,” said Melgar. Simbarashe Cha/The New York Times.

by Siddhartha Mitter

NEWARK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- This city prides itself on its resilience, and its artists share in that spirit. Ever since the coronavirus arrived, Newark’s creative community has been on the front lines, responding to the crisis and now the catharsis.

Like elsewhere, the shock was abrupt. Anchor institutions closed their doors in mid-March, among them the Newark Museum and Rutgers University - Newark, with its Paul Robeson Galleries and its Express Newark incubator for arts, entrepreneurship and social justice projects.

The artist-run gallery and studio complexes — Index Art Center, Gallery Aferro and Project for Empty Space, which had just moved into a former school in the heart of downtown — were drained of activity.

Elder artists, stubborn survivors of Newark’s decades of disinvestment, fiscal crises and ill reputation — and now wary observers of its downtown boom and gentrification — confined themselves at home. Young artists, many Newark-raised, tended to their parents and extended families. New Jersey’s largest city with some 280,000 residents, Newark has also suffered the most COVID-19 cases and deaths in the state.

Chrystofer Davis, a photographer often found in the Newark Print Shop darkroom or at the Black Swan coffee shop, an artist hangout, recalls watching his city’s energy get extinguished in the cold early spring. “There was a lot of emptiness and sadness,” Davis said. “I’ve always known Newark to be a lively place.”

But he also sensed an urgency, prompting him to make portraits of fellow Newarkers experiencing this time. “As soon as the pandemic happened, it needed to be documented,” he said. “These stories need to be archived because there’s a historic moment that’s happening.”

As COVID-19 has receded here, the sense of history has heightened, especially amid the insurrectionary national energy sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. In overwhelmingly Black and Latinx Newark, where the mayor, Ras Baraka, grew up in the radical tradition, the moment resonates less as confrontation than as vindication, confirming American realities that are well understood here.

Newark’s artists have applied their imagination to both cope with the time and seize its possibilities. Many have been documenting public and personal lives, and some have contributed their skills to activist campaigns. Their output is now coming into view in multiple forms, including exhibitions — online and getting ready for in-person reopening — as well as zines, posters and resources such as a citywide artists’ database.

The city government, meanwhile, has issued $750,000 in grants to 120 artists and arts organizations, the only city initiative of its type in New Jersey. And on June 27, two days after the city took down its Christopher Columbus statue, artists and residents gathered to make “ground murals” in bright yellow paint, of the kind that is now a trend, but with added Newark militancy. (One reads “All Black Lives Matter.” The other, in front of Essex County Courthouse, says “Abolish White Supremacy.”)

The occasion had a festive energy, with music, dancing and people burning sage.

“Art is part of the commentary of this moment,” said fayemi shakur, Newark’s art and cultural affairs director. “It’s very affirming when space is created to tell the truth about how you feel.”

As much as Newark’s creative community is energized, its material outlook is perilous. COVID-19 has thrown incomes and sustainability into uncertainty like never before.

The Newark Museum has lost one-third of its revenue, said Linda Harrison, its director. At Symphony Hall, a once-opulent prewar theater scheduled for revival through a $40 million capital campaign, event-rental income has vanished, said Taneshia Nash Laird, its executive director, adding that some of her staff lost family members to the virus.

At Akwaaba Gallery, which opened last year in the West Ward, the owners, Laura Bonas-Palmer and Ray Palmer, likewise watched revenue disappear. The gallery is a rare commercial art endeavor in the outer neighborhoods, which have drawn little benefit from downtown reinvestment and Newark’s renewed cachet.

“But for the fact that we own the building, we would be out of business now,” said Bonas-Palmer, who contracted COVID-19 herself, along with her husband.

Even before the pandemic, beloved art institutions were closing.

A lack of financing led the Aljira contemporary art gallery to suspend operations three years ago. The community hub City Without Walls, established in the mid-’70s while Newark was picking itself up from white and middle-class flight and the 1967 uprising, shut in 2018.

The same year, the city released a 10-year culture plan, Newark Creates, to support artists and art groups, notably through funding and access to space and affordable housing. But while the grants awarded last month — and universally welcomed — are part of that strategy, they were originally intended to support artist projects. Up to $5,000 for individual artists, they will now help most recipients to simply get by.

Baraka, a son of artist-activists Amiri Baraka and Amina Baraka, acknowledged that the COVID-19 crisis increased the challenge of delivering on his vision of Newark as a “city of the arts.”

“I’m 100% worried,” he said. “Artists have a difficult time as it is to stay true to their craft and make a living. Cities benefit from an art scene and culture, but not really the artists themselves. We have been trying to figure that piece out.”

He added, “It just means we have to be more creative.”

In many ways, Newark’s artists are already there. Cesar Melgar, a photographer, produced a zine of 27 black-and-white photos from the peak of the pandemic, showing empty streets, the grimness of socially distanced shopping and the circumstances, he wrote, of “essential workers, as the media calls them, whose jobs are too necessary for society to function without.”

Melgar, the son of immigrants from Colombia and Peru, counts as mentors Newark sculptor Kevin Blythe Sampson (who turned to painting during the pandemic) and Newark-raised artist Manuel Acevedo, who is now Bronx-based, who share his proletarian sensibility.

He lives near the gas station where his father was recently laid off, and he lost his own day job late last year, in electronics repair — affording him time, at least, to make images.

“I wanted something that people could hold in their hands,” Melgar said of his zine. “Especially during this time, I think it’s really important to have something tangible.”

For Layqa Nuna Yawar — a muralist and immigrant from Ecuador whose portraits, rich in geometric shapes and contrasting colors, adorn multiple walls in the city — the pandemic meant canceled commissions and a forced retreat into his studio.

“I had a week of depression,” Yawar said. “But as artists what we do is deal with that through our work.” His graphics are now on flyers of the nonprofit Ironbound Community Corp. advocating rent cancellations and tenant rights.

At Symphony Hall, meanwhile, Nash Laird was surprised to find a stock of personal protective equipment, including N-95 masks — vestiges of a post-9/11 designation of the building as emergency shelter. It prompted her to start Embrace Newark, a project distributing essential supplies to residents.

The venture has an art component, gathering photography, video and poetry testimonials, curated by poet Jasmine Mans. It will appear online and as an exhibition in the windows of the symphony building.

And an exhibition of pandemic-era work by 17 mostly Newark-based artists, curated by Jo-El Lopez, is already up at Akwaaba Gallery awaiting reopening, along with a sharp online version. It has already made sales, Bonas-Palmer said.

It includes two portraits from a series painter Armisey Smith is making of Black women giving the side-eye, blood in their eyes — a mood for the moment.

One subject in the series is a friend whose mother died from COVID-19, Smith said. “Another sent me selfies of herself crying as she thought of how George Floyd called out for his mother.”

For mixed-media artist Sally Helmi, the pandemic meant putting art projects aside to make extra time for her day job — as a registered nurse in a hospital in Paterson.

Perhaps prophetically, Helmi started a project last year involving surgical masks, in which she asked people to write on masks what they needed protection from. “None of the responses were health-related,” she said. “Some people said ‘Trump.’ Some said ‘the police.’ Some said ‘myself.’”

The intensity of the COVID-19 experience has put that project on hold for now, she said.

The replies, however, stuck in her mind. Seen from Newark, at least, the pandemic and issues of structural racism ultimately raise the same questions of rights and of safety. And the city’s big protest after the death of Floyd — a peaceful gathering, led by Ras Baraka, with police out of view — not only contrasted with the violence in other cities but offered a glimpse of healing.

For one thing, according to the five-artist Land Collective — Alliyah Allen, Nene Aïssatou Diallo, Gabe Ribeiro, Jillian M Rock and Davis, the photographer — the protest was the first time to gather in person, with each other and with the broader Newark community.

“It gave me so much energy just seeing everyone there,” Diallo said.

Rock, who has two teenage daughters, fretted at first about the health risk. “I wasn’t sure if I wanted them to come, but to bear witness is their right,” she said.

For now, Newark is slowly reopening, though the process may stall as New Jersey reassesses the risks from COVID-19 surging in other parts of the country. And the political and economic outlook is just as fraught.

In other words, the Newark artists are in their element.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty, but we’re energized to think creatively about how we’re going to reimagine this,” shakur said. “We have not given up. The solidarity in our community is strong.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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