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Inside the Cool Exclusive with Artist Isis Kenney

 I have realized that as people of color we like a visual communication, we like visual images and so I was trying to figure out  ways to be able to educate and be able to have a different type of dialogue about the issues that are going on within our community ” Says Artist Isis Kenney In This Exclusive Interview

LAST WEEK THE HARLEM SCHOOL OF THE ARTS PRESENTED ARTIST ISIS KENNEY'S THE REVOLUTION WILL NOT BE TELEVISED, A POWERFUL DIGITAL ART EXHIBITION THAT COMBINES HIP HOP CULTURE, FINE ART, CURRENT EVENTS, AND POLITICS TO ADDRESS CONTROVERSIAL SOCIETAL ISSUES. THE EXHIBITION CURATED BY HSA VISUAL ARTS DIRECTOR JONATHAN "JP" PATTON, SHOWCASED 15 PIECES OF ARTWORK THAT FEATURED HIP HOP AND POP CULTURE ICONS POLITICIANS AND VICTIMS OF POLICE VIOLENCE, INCLUDING THE LEGENDARY MUSICIAN PRINCE IN "PRINCE NELSON", PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA IN "BARACK OBAMA FEAR NO EVIL," HIP HOP ARTIST KANYE WEST IN "KIM K MIND CONTROL," MIKE BROWN IN " MIKE BROWN IT WAS MURDER" AND NBA PLAYER LEBRON JAMES IN "JAMES BLACK MIDNIGHT," ON BOLD COLORED BACKGROUNDS. 

ARTIST ISIS KENNEY OPENS UP TO ART LIVING ABOUT HOW IMPORTANT ART AND HIP-HOP IS TO THE COMMUNITY AS A CATALYST FOR POLITICAL AND SOCIAL EXPRESSION FOR PRODUCTIVE CHANGE MAKING CONVERSATIONS. SHE UNAPOLOGETICALLY SHARES LIBERATING INSIGHT INTO THE GENERATIONAL PROBLEMS WITHIN THE BLACK COMMUNITY TRYING TO BRIDGE THE GAP BETWEEN THE ELDERS AND THE YOUTH, WHILE THOUGHTFULLY EDUCATING US ON A NEW PERSPECTIVE ABOUT HIP-HOP AND THE POWER UNSHACKLING INFLUENCE. 

Art Living: I am here today with artist Isis Kenney. It is a pleasure to meet you. 

Isis: Thank You.

Art Living: Can you tell me about the exhibit you are currently showing at the Harlem School of the Arts

Isis: Well I've been working on this collection for about a year now. with everything that's been going on in the news, everything that's been going on in our community, I have realized that as people of color we like visual communication, we like visual images and so I was trying to figure out ways to be able to educate and be able to have a different type of dialogue about the issues that are going on within our community. We don't really have a lot of platforms and outlets that have these discussions especially amongst our elders and amongst young people and bridging that gap. And so, because I love my people and I know exactly what we want as far as nice shiny entertainment, I tried to wrap the news, social issues, my passion for my people and what's going on and addressing these issues in art, in the form of art. 

So Hip Hop Fine Art has been the brand has been created since 2011 and I started doing collages at first, like cutting up magazines and doing physical collages, trying to do storytelling through collages. Now I am doing storytelling through digital art. 

Art Living: So, the exhibit is a progression of the original idea?

Isis:  Yes, it is. I am really trying to have a platform where our issues are able to be seen, be heard, and be recognized. Whether it's police brutality, whether it's how we feel about any presidential candidate that is running or has run. A lot of celebrities that claim to care about us but don't really care about us. A lot of celebrities that are straight up and down distraction from what we need to care about. So really just fusing all of those different elements in a visual display of art. I am very big on positive images and positive energy.

Art Living: Yes, I love that. And it's so meaningful that you say that because as I am looking through your work you have a few mainstream subjects. From Obama to Donald Trump to Stokely Carmichael in your pieces but they seem to be juxtaposed with these comic book nostalgic hip hop youth period that we love so much. Can you talk to me about the influence of hip-hop in your mixed into work and how translates as a language? I know I am a hip-hop head and so when I see certain colors, fonts, I automatically stop dead in my tracks. LOL Talk to me about how strategic you were in using that for this exhibit.

Isis:  Well hip-hop has always spoken for the voice of people of color and also young people. Hip-Hop has been again our platform but it has also been our voice to be able to address things that are going on in our communities. And whether it's mainstream or not that has been the essence of the culture. So with that and taking the essence of the culture, the vibrancy of the culture, because we're very vibrant colorful people, okay. So taking that movement, taking that energy, and putting it into something that is going to be thought-provoking. Something that is not only going to be thought-provoking or be beautiful but be something possibly inspiring. A lot of times young people don't see, and not even just young people, but we don't see the struggles that people go through.  We see the outcome.

Art Living: Right, we don't see the behind the scenes

Isis:  We don't know that they couldn't get a job and they were broke for however many ever years. And even when we do hear these stories we don't necessarily take it that seriously, you know what I'm saying. And so with that, children need to understand and people need to know because everybody's going through it. People need to know they are not alone and with that, I'm hoping that my artwork is allowing people to be able to see for instance in the Chris Brown piece, which someone asked me about, and I explained that I felt that particular piece was important to the collection because not matter what status you may have, if you are a person of color in this community, in this world, in this country, there are certain things that you are going to come across whether it's you know racism, discrimination, police brutality, I mean all of these different elements and all of these obstacles occur regardless of how much money you got, how much fame you got, or how many girls you got. Regardless of all of these things that people look at and aspire to be and look at as far as fame, we are still all dealing with the same struggles. 

Art Living: On all levels

Isis: Right, and then it's ongoing. Every time I turn around I am recognizing that can throw up my art on this site or that site and it's going to be constantly on point because a lot of these issues that we're dealing with we been dealing with. And I don't really know when we're not going to deal with it. Because we don't have people that are passing legislation on our behalf, we don't even have people that talk for us that truly are and represent us.

Art Living: Right, Right, so is this exhibit sort of your way to progress the conversation.  I find that art is a little bit easier to swallow when talking about the controversy it is not as intense. I think sometimes it is a little masked because we know the are is going to be bold, colorful, and in your face, but I think often times the part that gets overlooked is the healing process once we have the conversations and we've seen the pieces, I always think to myself, "what's next? And this is the responsibility we have for making sure everyone can see your art, knows what it's about in its content and move on past that.

Isis: The Revolution.

Art Living: Exactly.

Sitting down for this candid and authentic interview with millennial artist Isis Kenney was a breath of fresh air, to say the least, as we delved into her purpose, her passions, and her future as a creative with the power of visual stimulation. It is clear that Kenney's upbringing of Black pride and education, as well as her sensitivity to the pulse of her community, is the driving force within her artwork. in the words of Kenney herself, "the revolution begins at home." You can catch the exhibit at Harlem School of the Arts from now until November 27, 2016.

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“The Crown Futures” Installation by Shani Peters at Sugar Hill Children's Museum

In the workshops we talked about the history of crowns and that led us to talk about slavery, racial inequality, and the concept of power. I am regularly pleasantly surprised with the ability of young people to talk about different subjects. These kids know what's going on. I hope we planted seeds in the minds of students so they continue these thoughts as they grown into adults.

-Shani Peters

What do Miss America, Jean-Michele Basquiat, Stevie Wonder, and Nefertiti all have in common? Ok, try adding Kwanzaa to the list and see if you can get a little closer to a common answer. Naturally, a host of good music, high crowns, and Black pride should begin to flood your memory bank, but for the artist, Shani Peters these familiar names proved more than just childhood memories.

Peters, a multidisciplinary New York-based artist decided to expand on her series The Crown which is an exhibit and series of projects that have evolved over the last several years. Her latest installation "The Crown Futures" at Sugar Hill Children's Museum celebrates the concepts of self-determination through the young eyes of youth ages 5-13 years old. Peters artistic content revolves around media culture, social justice, cultural record keeping and community building so this installation was near and dear to her heart as she reflected on her own childhood for inspiration and healing. Going back to those childhood memories resonates deeply with Peters thanks to her father who was a Black History professor who managed to keep her interest in Black history with the teachings of music, literature, and theater. Her inspirations began with the memories of family Kwanzaa celebrations and its 7 principles, particularly, self- determination. Peters reveals that it was the principle Kujichagulia aka Self-Determination that she struggled the most with to maintain and experience. Like her father who wanted to do so much more than teach Black History but instead create narratives around the lives of those affected most within history, Peters included the everyday children around her to examine, celebrate, and stimulate personal growth for viewers of all ages.

Her interactive workshops didn't just include the creating of the crowns, but also led to productive discussions about race, power, and civil rights. 500 feet of gold paper and 400 crowns later Peters would combine her childhood memories of Kwanzaa, Stevie Wonder's song "The Crown" her sightings of famous crowns like Nefertiti, Miss America, and Basquiat , and her student's creations into a breathtaking installation. An installation that transcends tradition, time, culture, politics, and social existence that we all can relate to. As Peters uses her work to facilitate healing, freedom, self-reflection for Black Americans in particular, you can not ignore the universal message of love, opportunity, and respect for all.

Check out Peters artist statement from earlier works of the Crown Project

The African’s experience in the Americas has been grounded in brutality and trauma. Through eras of forced enslavement, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, both clearly stated and veiled every-day racism, and now the most commonly perceived police abuse of power, Black people have exercised unimaginable degrees of determination to simply survive and persevere. The work in this exhibition is the most recent exploration in the theme of imagining crowns as symbols for Self-Determination and the complexity of the experience of the African people following the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade that my series The Crown has reflected on for the past few years. These new works begin to explore what Self-Determination means specifically for Black Americans situating both historical and contemporary images of Black Americans engaged in focused political protest within the visual narrative of The Crown project. James Baldwin famously stated, “Our crown has already been bought and paid for, all we have to do is wear it.”  These works illustrate the price that was and continues to be paid.

All Photos were capture by Michael Palma

Harlem School of the Arts Havana Nights Dance Gala

For more than 5 decades, the Harlem School of the Arts has provided quality arts training to children of color into the world of the arts that too often seemed out of their reach.  Students of the institution were taught all art forms under one roof from violins and other orchestral instruments to ballet and tap as well as Shakespeare to quench all their artistic desires. But it all began with the dream of a concert soprano, Dorothy Maynor, in the basement of the St. James Presbyterian Church in Harlem. The prestigious Harlem School of the Arts is one of New York City’s most pioneering and eminent institutions of quality arts education.  HSA’s notable alumni base of Tony-award winning actors, celebrated operatic voices, jazz musicians, visual artists and dancers has proven decade after decade that it is so much more than an art school that has become a neighborhood gem, but instead, a vital program that has reached thousands of youth across the country, providing direction, discipline, and hope to children who are most in need of knowing there can be a bright and successful future in the world of the arts. The historic establishment provides arts education in four core artistic disciplines: dance, theatre, music, and visual arts where nearly 4,000 children are served on site as well as in various schools throughout NYC.

On May 12, 2016, Harlem School of the Arts hosted a Havana Nights themed Dance Party Benefit sponsored by The Williams Capital Group and Sweet Hospitality. The evening featured live performances by HSA students, The Afro Latin Jazz Cats and the Afro-Cuban Dance Ensemble Oyu Oro.  There were over 200 attendees and others in attendance included HSA staff and supporters as well as community leaders, activists and  host of A-list actors and actresses. Despite almost closing its doors permanently in 2010 due to a financial crisis, the community and arts activist have been working tirelessly to spread the word about Harlem School of the Arts’ legacy, its current student body of amazing emerging artists, and raise continuous funds for the expanding institution. That labor love would finally prove worth it in 2012 when they received a $5 million grant from the Herb Alpert Foundation and raised over $1 million in 2015 at its 50th Anniversary Gala just last year.  This past spring President Eric Pryor in an interview with MetroFocus on PBS Thirteen revealed how HSA, facing difficult financial circumstances over the last decade and the receiving of a major donation from the Herb Alpert Foundation, has allowed the organization to restore its endowment. Pryor confidently expressed that, with the restructuring of a new board and executive leadership, HSA will continue to grow and expand its programming here in Harlem. They have held true to their mission of lifelong learning through the arts with the belief that all children deserve access to a quality arts education, empowering them to become the creative thinkers and innovative leaders of tomorrow.

I had the opportunity to not only come back and cover my arts alma mater but I was able to chat with President Eric Pryor about the importance of HSA’s art fundraising and what new programming we can expect this upcoming fall.

The Rebirth of an American Classic with Their Eyes Were Watching God

" I tried . . . not to pander to the folks who expect a clown and a villain in every Negro. Neither did I want to pander to those 'race' people among us who see nothing but perfection in all of us. I do not attempt to solve any problems [in my novels]. I know I cannot straighten out with a few pen-strokes what God and men took centuries to mess up. So I tried to deal with life as we actually live it-not as the sociologists imagine it."
—Zora Neale Hurston, from a letter to Fannie Hurst

 

This past Spring the WOW Cafè Theatre presented the premiere of the Laurence Holder’s adaptation of the Zora Neale Hurston’s legendary literary classic, “Their Eyes Were Watch God”. Hurston’s iconic novel was initially published in New York City on September 18, 1937, but it did not garner the success it deserved with harsh critics like Richard Wright essentially saying that Hurston’s fiction work undermined her Black male counterparts’ attempts to combat racism. Out of print for almost three decades post its original publication date in 1937, the novel was rediscovered in the 1970’s by Black scholars, programs, and academic institutions across the US. Alice Walker was one of those scholars directly responsible for the Hurston revival that still exists today with companies like create, Inc.

The dramatic saga of Hurston’s most successful work of literature was directed by Marishka S. Phillips featuring a powerful cast that included: Kimberly Monroe (Nanny), Lauren Marissa Smith (Janie), Michael Oloyede (Logan), DeMarcus Woods (Jody), Sawandi Wilson (Teacake), Antwain Lewis (Amos), Dontalle Sylvester (Lee), Nicolette Ellis (Pheoby), Kellee Fuller (Daisy), Jennifer Russie Burks (Soul of Janie). Presented at New York City’s oldest run theatre WOW Cafè the audience was taken on the emotional life journey of Janie Mae Crawford, a mulatto woman born by the violence of rape from Florida. Free-spirited, in search of life and her authentic self, we watch Janie’s progression towards womanhood from a teen bride who, at sixteen, married a grubbing farmer at the anxious instigation of her slave-born grandmother, as she undertakes an unpredictable journey that includes three marriages, navigating complex cultural morals and surviving within the social expectations of a small Southern town. Director Marishka S. Phillips doesn’t hold back on the highlighting the complexities of each character throughout the play as the actors leave their souls on the stage for the audience to interpret. More importantly, Phillips introduces the audience to another layer of Janie with the charismatic and vulnerable, yet eerily memorable actor and musician Jennifer Russie Burks as the Soul of Janie. Burks carries the audience through Janie’s innermost thoughts and fears with her beloved violin and narration.  There is a great juxtaposition between Burks as the Soul of Janie and Laren Marissa Smith as Janie Mae Crawford throughout the play as Smith brilliantly captures the unapologetically independent and quick temper of Janie.  For the first time, the audience is able to experience the direct effects of the suffocating of Janie’s spirit as she obliges the endless rules and norms of being a Black woman in the 1920’s. Smith is witty, funny, passionate, and conveys the defiance in Janie’s character with the utmost sensitivity reminding the audience of  Hurston’s beautiful manipulation of  language within those memorable lines from the classic. You find yourself lost in the literature as all the actors deal with the social, cultural, and economic constraints of their characters lives.  Hurston’s literary works are undoubtedly pivotal within American and Black history because her work was an  effective political weapon, that promoted racial pride and unsilenced the voices of Black woman way ahead of her time.

It is no coincidence that the revival of this play took place at the WOW Cafe Theatre women’s theater collective in NYC’s East Village, which promotes the empowerment of women through the performing arts. You can support this project and other create, inc. endeavors through our ongoing fundraising efforts at https://www.gofundme.com/astageplay. All donations over $5 US are tax

Checkout out the highlights below!