arts education

“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.