Art tells New Jersey stories at Newark's new Terminal A

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Art tells New Jersey stories at Newark's new Terminal A
The mural “Between the Future Past,” by Layqa Nuna, at Newark Liberty International Airport in Newark, N.J., Nov. 10, 2022. Permanent public artworks by Layqa Nuna Yawar and Karyn Olivier offer in the airport’s Terminal A offer travelers different views of the Garden State. (Zack DeZon/The New York Times)

by Hilarie M. Sheets

NEW YORK, NY.- Move over, LaGuardia Airport. Newark Liberty International Airport’s just-completed Terminal A makeover comes with two monumental new works of art.

Not since the Works Progress Administration commissioned 10 murals by Arshile Gorky in 1937 for the Newark Airport Administration Building — only two of which still survive, now preserved at the Newark Museum of Art — has the New Jersey airport boasted any significant art to call its own.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony Tuesday will inaugurate the 1-million-square-foot facility, which is expected to open to the public before the end of the year.

“We’ve tried to make art a signature part of the whole airport construction — for them to be appealing and inspiring,” said Rick Cotton, executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the agency overseeing the $2.7 billion redevelopment at Newark as well as the $8 billion transformation of LaGuardia.

The Public Art Fund partnered with the Port Authority and Munich Airport NJ, operating Newark’s new arrivals and departures hall, on the $6 million commissioning of two permanent artworks by Layqa Nuna Yawar and Karyn Olivier that reflect the landscape and history of New Jersey.

“Whenever the Port Authority calls, it’s very exciting because these opportunities for artists are once in a lifetime,” said Nicholas Baume, artistic and executive director of the nonprofit Public Art Fund.

In recent years, the Port Authority also collaborated with the fund on its $10 million commissions at LaGuardia’s Terminal B and with the Queens Museum on a $12 million investment in the art program at LaGuardia’s Terminal C.

For the art commissions at Newark’s Terminal A, designed and built by Tutor Perini/Parsons, an advisory council led by the New Jersey State Council on the Arts with representatives from the Newark Museum of Art and Rutgers University, among other local stakeholders, contributed names of artists for consideration. Olivier, 54, a conceptual artist based in Philadelphia, and Layqa Nuna Yawar, 37, a muralist living in Newark, were chosen from a shortlist of six artists who were invited to submit proposals.

Additionally, the advisory council selected existing artworks by 27 local artists, from more than 160 submissions, to be displayed both on the digital welcome banner on the departures level and through large-scale photographs and diptychs throughout the terminal. These include an image of the giant Colgate Clock, a well-known landmark facing lower Manhattan on the Jersey waterfront, by Andrzej Jerzy Lech, a Polish immigrant based in Jersey City. This program of temporary, rotating artworks, on view for at least a year through licensing agreements, is supported by the Port Authority with an additional $500,000.

“New Jersey has always had an identity crisis; we’ve always stood in the shadow of New York,” said Kevin O’Toole, chair of the Port Authority and a New Jersey native. “New Jersey can tell its own story about its rich history and its people. It’s a land of immigrants that have made this state so wealthy in terms of its culture.”

Layqa Nuna Yawar

“Without Newark, I wouldn’t be the artist I am today — it’s been a beautiful home base,” said Layqa, who moved to the Bronx borough of New York City from Ecuador at age 14 and now lives 15 minutes from Newark airport on the greater Lenape territory. “I’m connected to the idea of the airport because I am an immigrant of Indigenous and European descent who migrated to a place where immigrants collect in the U.S.”

Layqa first began drawing graffiti on walls illegally as a teenager. Now the Rutgers University-trained painter works with businesses, institutions and the city on community-based murals in downtown Newark. Leading a large crew of assistants and negotiating multiple layers of approvals with different agencies on the airport project has taken his collaborative practice to a new level.

Personal and cultural narratives inform his vibrant and celebratory mural titled “Between the Future Past,” spanning 350 feet across Terminal A’s arrivals hall and concourse level. Drawing on a cyclical sense of time, Layqa has painted portraits of well-known and obscure figures connected to the site of New Jersey from across history.

A young Lenni-Lenape boy, Mathyias “Laughing Wolf” Ellis, appears repeatedly in full regalia dancing across the panoramic skylines of Newark and Manhattan as viewed from Hoboken, New Jersey, punctuated with native bog turtles and flying egrets, violets and roses — the state flowers of New Jersey and New York. Representations of jazz singer Sarah Vaughan, the first Black and Indigenous pilot Bessie Coleman, transgender-rights activist Marsha P. Johnson and photographer Dorothea Lange — all with New Jersey connections — are intermixed with images of unsung airport workers including mechanic Nathaniel Quaye, originally from Ghana.

“That goes back to the idea of who do we celebrate and who gets to be put on a mural on the scale of a church,” Layqa said. He whittled down his cast of almost 20 characters from some 800 people he researched and photographed. Produced entirely in his studio, the artist printed a background of ghostly images on polyester fabric, on top of which he and his assistants hand-painted all the figures and foreground colors in sections that were then adhered to an aluminum backing on the airport wall.

“The airport is a theater,” the artist said. “It’s like a soapbox, a place where you can reach the whole world.”

Karyn Olivier

Working frequently in public spaces where her multimedia sculptural installations manipulate familiar objects and viewpoints, Olivier immerses herself deeply in a site. For the airport, she considered the experiences shared by all travelers. “I was thinking about the critical moments of takeoff and descent,” said Olivier, who grew up in the Brooklyn borough of New York City and used the airport in Newark often to visit her grandparents in the Caribbean. (She was born in Trinidad.) “No matter how old I am, that’s the point when there’s a kind of anticipation of the unknown, a wonder, an awe with travel.”

Using takeoff and descent as her conceptual departure points, Olivier has created “Approach” — two sculptures that cut through the three levels of Terminal A. Dangling more than 52 feet midair, it’s her largest installation to date.

Both sculptures are stacks of 17 floating and parallel metal rings, with panoramic photographs of New Jersey imprinted on the top and bottom of each flat circle, ranging in diameter from 5 to 19 feet. The fluid, telescoping overall shape of the sculptures, in opposite yin-yang configurations, seems to compress and expand as the sculptures are circumnavigated. Fragmented views of New Jersey’s skylines, shipping ports, salt marshes and infrastructure, such as its infamous turnpike, conflate and realign in dizzying mosaics.

Working with two professional photographers, Olivier shot some 5,000 images, including day and night views from the ground looking up and aerially looking down — taken during a handful of exhilarating helicopter rides as well as from Newark airport’s control tower and a penthouse terrace of Eleven80, one of Newark’s tallest buildings. Olivier selected 68 photographs for the final piece, grouping sunrise through daytime shots on one sculpture and sunset through nighttime on the other. She also flipped the perspective on each: skyward-tilted views are visible looking down on the sculptures while bird’s eye angles are seen looking up at the suspended rings.

“This inversion and optical perceptual shift echoes the kind of temporary disorientation we feel when we travel through different time zones and locations,” said Olivier, who by happy accident captured a glimpse of a mural by Layqa in one of her overhead shots of downtown Newark. She’s interested in how she can surprise viewers, “making a familiar landscape novel or uncanny,” she said, “while invoking an immediate sense of a very specific place.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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