BAAD!: Showcasing the Bronx Culture Cauldron
Last fall artist and party curator Lucien Smith and real estate developer Keith Rubinstein organized ‘a star-studded’ rave to celebrate two luxury condo towers soon to be built along the South Bronx waterfront. Among the guests were Adrien Brody, Baz Luhrmann and Naomi Campbell. The party, called Macabre Suite, sported ‘burnt-out, bullet-riddled cars and flaming trash barrels’. It took place in a long abandoned piano factory – the new development will be branded the Piano District – under the Third Avenue Bridge in Port Morris, just across a cardboard box giving shelter to a homeless man.
The Bronxonians were not at all amused, and royally vented their anger on social media. The party ‘confirmed all the stereotypes about the “burning Bronx” of forty years ago’, said a participant in a public talk in the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance on Friday January 15, during APAP and Under the Radar. BAAD!, as it is known, was founded in 1998 by Arthur Aviles and Charles Rice-González. Both grew up in the Bronx, as gay men of Puerto Rican descent. Rice-González is a writer, playwright, and community and LGBT activist. His debut novel Chulito (2011) got awards and recognitions from the American Library Association and the National Book Critics Circle. Arthur Aviles is a renowned dancer, who began his career with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. He started his own dance group in Paris in 1996, but soon moved it to the Bronx. It is still based in BAAD!
For eighteen years now, the two have worked tirelessly to build a home for Bronx artists, connect them with the local community and make them known to the wider world. They have met their first two goals with resounding success, although it has never been easy. To create BAAD!’s first space in Hunts Point’s American Banknote Building, they cleared with their own hands 3,500 square feet of abandoned warehouse floors full of rubbish. In 2013 they had to abandon the Banknote because of soaring rents under a new owner, and created a new space in a Gothic revivalist building on the grounds of a church in Westchester Square.
The third goal remains an uphill battle, as the Macabre Suite incident shows. In fact, the Bronx has always had a rich cultural life of its own. To name just one example, it is one of the cradles of hiphop, as Jeff Chang described in his book Can’t Stop Won’t Stop (2005). ‘Arts in the Bronx were never exotic for me,’ said photographer and documentary maker Edwin Pagán, who also grew up there, during the public talk at BAAD! ‘It didn’t feel poor here either. But television just kept showing the Bronx as this ongoing battleground. Hiphop, rap, breakdance: lots of stuff created here was taken all over the world.’
To this very day, few outside the borough take note.
But Aviles and Rice-González will just never give up – and neither will Jane Gabriels, one of their closest and longest-time collaborators. She is director of Pepatian, an arts organisation set up in the South Bronx more than thirty years ago by choreographers Merian Soto and Patti Bradshaw, and visual artist and MacArthur Fellow Pepon Osorio. At some point she began producing APAP-showcases of Bronx artists’ works. Some six years ago Gabriels had a eureka moment: why not bring the APAP-attendees to the Bronx, instead of the Bronx to the Midtown Hilton?
‘It’s such a competitive time of year,’ she explains. ‘I felt like we needed to create something different.’ And so she did. The first Bronx-showcase was held in 2011. The first four editions were a tour of three Bronx venues: BAAD!, Pregones Theater and Hostos Center for the Arts & Culture. This became impractical when BAAD! had to move house; since then it has been its sole venue. The organization and funding is still done by Gabriels and Pepatian.
The APAP-attendees love these events, because most of them have never been to the Bronx. I hadn’t, and I did. The whole event was a very well organized crash-course in Bronx culture. Beside the showcases, there was excellent local food – prepared by volunteers – , extensive documentation, and the public talk. BAAD!’s new Gothic home felt like a cross between a theater, a studio and an inn.
The showcased artists on January 15 were mainly, though not exclusively, dancers. Many of them are gay and incorporate that in their work in some form or other. Usually they combine their performing art with teaching and community activism, just like Aviles and Rice-González. To that extent, they reflect the philosophy and backgrounds of BAAD!’s founders. But Aviles and Rice-González have grown up as ‘undiluted’ Puerto Ricans, one of the main communities non-Bronxonians like me tend to associate the Bronx with, the other being African Americans.
To the younger generations, this kind of neat and simple distinction no longer applies. They all come from a multitude of cultures, languages and ethnicities, and have to untangle their own identities from the jumble. It was their take on this process that made their showcase presentations especially fascinating. To begin with, many of the showcased artists don’t originally come from the Bronx. They have moved there, or work there, because the multi-culture borough is open and sympathetic to their complicated roots. They simply feel at home.
Jumatatu Poe is a performer and choreographer based in Philadelphia. He ‘grew up dancing around the living room and at parties with his siblings and cousins’ and considers that his ‘foundational training’. Later, he was influenced by the African and capoeira dance performances he saw ‘on the California college campuses where his parents studied and worked’. He showcased an excerpt of his Android Tears, a dance solo accompanied by recorded music of Frédéric Chopin. ‘In the Bronx I feel a trust, an understanding, an openness here that I don’t feel elsewhere,’ Poe said later during the public talk.
‘You belong where you are needed,’ said Cynthia Paniagua in reaction to Poe. Paniagua is a dancer, choreographer and educator of mixed Peruvian and Nuyorican heritage (Nuyorican refers to descendants of the Puerto Rican diaspora in New York). She grew up in New York, then obtained a Fulbright scholarship to study traditional dance in Peru. Ever since she has divided her time between the USA and Peru, the Andes mountains and the Amazon river. Among her major professional accomplishments are a leading role in Soy Andina, which premiered at Lincoln Center and received several film festival awards, and El Vuelo del Condor, ‘a Peruvian based circus dance theater spectacular in Lima’, which Paniagua performed and directed in collaboration with members of the Cirque du Soleil. At BAAD! she showcased Kukama, a work ‘inspired by the ongoing struggle of native communities in the Amazon of Peru who are in danger of extinction due to environmental contamination and systematic genocide imposed on them by their government and international energy/gas corporations’.
Then there was NeNe Ali. She showcased a powerful blend of spoken word and hiphop (see video). Her poem What Hip Hop Mean To Me explores the distinction between rap and hiphop. The latter is about self-expression, the first a commercial megabusiness, which has every interest in keeping its fans dumb, and blinded by the wrong examples: bejeweled ‘bad-ass’ dudes with loads of chicks and cash, showing off their mansions and Mercedes. Ali’s performance made clear that there is no uniform black culture anymore. Black or coloured youngsters like her have to make much more complex and sophisticated choices, which can strain their relations within the community they grew up in.
The barons of high art and private funding for the arts can be just as oblivious to the Bronx cultural cauldron as developers and party curators. ‘Many bigger funders think they don’t need to pay us that well, because we are Bronx artists,’ said Elena Martínez, folklorist and artistic co-director of the Bronx Music Heritage Center. ‘They go like: “You work for the community, right?” ’ The rules most commonly attached to arts funding don’t fit the Bronx either. Edwin Pagán spoke of ‘flavor of the month grants’, targeted at non-artistic goals like diversity and empowering the audience. ‘Many artists alter their vision to make it fit the latest grant category. Grant givers rarely think about the artists. We should provide seed money to enable artists to develop themselves.’
That is exactly what BAAD! has been trying to do since 1998, Charles Rice-González explained. ‘Our curating process starts with opening our doors and letting people in. We provide space for people to do whatever they want to do. Most funders find that scary.’ It is not just about money, he stressed, but also about support and structure. ‘Even if we give somebody a 100,000 dollars, there’s always the question: after the project, what? As a Bronx artist, you have to work for and within the community.’
Joost Ramaer | Amsterdam | Saturday, February 20, 2016
*Please note that this article has been edited to better reflect the role of showcase organizer Jane Gabriels