You are here: Home Communications Pressroom News Mother, Bethel, Harlem USA: Master Artist and Master of Fine Arts Students Join Forces

Mother, Bethel, Harlem USA: Master Artist and Master of Fine Arts Students Join Forces

Artist and filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris has a long history of combining art with activism, delving into the intersections between personal narratives and social movements. So when Professor Andrew Lund, director of Hunter’s MFA program in Integrated Media Arts (IMA), invited him to teach a course based on Digital Diaspora Family Reunion (DDFR), his transmedia project that builds and celebrates accessible community archives through workshops, performances, and digital media centered around the family photographic album– he was eager to bring his methodologies to the Hunter classroom.

Over the fall one-semester course, Harris encouraged the students to redefine their notions of “archive” and to produce work that featured their families according to their own definitions. When the students shared their work at the end of the class, “it was like a festival – people did art projects, screenings, films, performances, all kinds of cultural expression using the digital diaspora methods,” Harris remembers. This Harvard-educated artist has taught all over the country and the globe, and was struck by the particular diversity, talent and vibrancy of his class at Hunter. “The work was so moving; people were crying. And I just thought, the work is so strong and these students are so dedicated and smart, I wanted their work to be seen in a larger context.”

So he reached out to Natalie Conn, an IMA MFA graduate advisor: could they find a way to showcase the students’ art? The team at IMA MFA moved into action; Professor Andrew Demirjian began brainstorming with Conn and Harris about possibilities. They brought in Arden Sherman, the curator of the Hunter East Harlem Gallery, and suddenly the conversation had moved beyond a one-time pop-up showcase of student art to a more comprehensive showcase opportunity: an entirely new course, held in the HEH Gallery. Conceived by Conn, Demirjian, Harris, and Sherman, they birthed a new idea – a new course that would lead to an official exhibit: a collaboration with Harris, presenting his art side-by-side with the students’ work.

Once the East Harlem location was introduced, Harris was eager to explore his roots in the community, particularly with First AME Church: Bethel, the site of his family’s ancestral spiritual home where his grandfather had taken copious photographs many years before, and where Harris himself had come of age. For Harris, who has achieved international attention for his deeply human and illuminating films, lectures, installations and writing, this project presented a kind of homecoming. For the students – Chris J Gauthier, Patri González Ramírez, Cynthia Groya, Janis Mahnure, Melissa Montero, Allie Shyer, and Jacqueline Wade – it offered a new to reflect on their own homelands and personal journeys.
The resulting exhibition, Mother, Bethel, Harlem, USA, opened on August 30, 2018. Featuring a never-before-exhibited series of images that Harris took in 1987 at James Baldwin’s funeral, the exhibit investigates Harris’ decades-in-the-making body of interdisciplinary of work, alongside the students’ creative explorations using his practices.
“I always thought of archives as black and white photos that I might find somewhere, and not anything that I would have myself,” said third year IMA MFA student Janis Mahnure. But as she imagined a stranger going through her photos and belongings and constructing a picture of her, she started to rethink her own self-narrative. “Looking at pictures of my mother, I realized that one of the main narratives that’s changed for me throughout my life is my relationship to my Bengali heritage. Growing up, I was really ashamed of my culture, and particularly how my mother embodied that culture.” Mahnure was embarrassed by her mother’s traditional clothes and fantasized about wearing a big white wedding dress when she walked down the aisle. But when Mahnure got married this year, she wore a traditional Bengali red dress, just like her mother wanted. A piece of that dress is now part of her contribution to the Mother Bethel exhibit, an invitation for viewers to tangibly experience her archive and the complexity of her ever-evolving cultural identity.
“I was so inspired by these students,” Harris said. “My mother graduated from Hunter, and I have a long history with colleagues in the Hunter film and art departments.” When Harris was transitioning to the art/film world from working in television, he took several formative independent study courses with Hunter’s Distinguished Professor Stuart Ewen. “I think the IMA program is just a gem of a program in a gem of an institution,” Harris added.
For some of the students, the coursework and exhibit offered a moving opportunity to explore their already-deep ties to the East Harlem community, like Melissa Montero who created an installation of portraits, photographs and archival footage that honored her family’s origins in Puerto Rico and their migration to New York City in the 1950s. Jacqueline Wade focused on the spirituality and activism inherent to the East Harlem community and its churches, creating a piece “looking at the present into the future.”

For others, this was their first time considering the their relationship with Harlem. “I’m very conscious of the fact that I’m not from Harlem, but I live here. And so it weighed on me pretty heavily to want to contribute something,” said Chris Gauthier. At first he was nervous about combining his family’s images with those of the Harlem community. “But I actually found a lot of connections between my family and Thomas’s archives and stories from the archives I went through at El Centro and the Schomburg Center.” He ultimately remixed DDFR’s audio archives into his piece, inviting visitors to listen – and to contribute their own voices – in an audio recording booth.

Other students found parallels between their family’s history, and images they saw in the murals, art and architecture of East Harlem. As they salvaged photographs of their parents and grandparents from boxes and envelopes, they started to look at their relatives – and their memories – with fresh eyes.

“Images speak to us,” Harris says. “Archives are a language. If you don’t use it, you lose it.” Mother, Bethel, Harlem, USA is an effort to find and speak that language, and at Hunter East Harlem Gallery, it is very much alive.

Mother, Bethel, Harlem, USA is on display at Hunter East Harlem Gallery through October 6, 2018.

The Gallery is located at:
The Silberman School of Social Work
2180 3rd Avenue at 119th Street

Open hours:
Wednesday-Saturday, 12-5pm
The exhibition is made possible by generous support from Hunter College’s IMA MFA Department; the Office of the President, Hunter College; New York City Council; and by Joan Lazarus. Organized by Arden Sherman, Allie Shyer, Helen Chu and Natalie Conn.

Document Actions
695 Park Ave
NY, NY 10065