If you happen to be strolling through Bedford-Stuyvesant down Tompkins Avenue near Monroe Street, you may chance upon a unique new art installation, a collage of black-and-white portraits lining the wall of the clothing store, Sincerely Tommy.
All of the portraits are close-ups, a cross-section of faces from various age groups and cultural backgrounds. Who are these people, and what is their story?
The project is called “Griots in the Stuy,” and the photos are of residents who live in and around Tompkins Avenue.
Rasu Jilani, the project’s manager and curator, has set out to collect, share and then archive the personal stories of Bed-Stuy–a parallel narrative around gentrification–using Tompkins Avenue as the spine and its residents as “griots.” A griot is a West African word for an historian or storyteller. Griots are a repository of oral tradition and are often seen as a societal leader due to his or her traditional position as an adviser to royal personages.
Jilani has chosen these particular residents and focused on this specific area, “because Tompkins represents the aggressive change that has happened in Bed-Stuy, just within the last year,” he said.
“This corridor has greatly transformed in terms of all the new developments and businesses… And there’s no shade to that statement; it’s not a bad or good thing. It just is.”
Jilani said his goal was to show how there are two different communities co-existing in Bed-Stuy right now: The traditional Bed-Stuy and the new Bed-Stuy. “And they don’t talk enough to each other,” he said.
“So I wanted to create a neighborhood fellowship by highlighting mostly key people in the community who have been here for a while, but also random everyday people who have been here from five months to five years. Those are all the types of people represented on this wall.”
Griots in the Stuy is funded and resourced by The Laundromat Project. Jilani was chosen by The Laundromat Project as the resident artist for Bed-Stuy, which means he lives in the community for which he’s making the art.
“My whole concept was formed around the West African griot culture,” he said. “When you went into a village, the first person you saw was the storyteller. They would tell you the culture, the values and the important people in the community before you even stepped into the village.”
Griots in the Stuy is five months in the making and has three phases: 1. The personal stories of each “griot” that he has recorded and collected; 2. The public exhibition that showcases their faces along the walls of businesses in their community; and 3. The online archive which will house all of the stories and photos via SoundCloud.
“And as I’m collecting these stories and asking them questions, I never use the ‘G word’ (gentrification),” Jilani added.
“I just ask questions like, What’s your relationship to Bed-Stuy? What’s your relationship to Tompkins Avenue? And I try to really to get into the value system and the culture of this community that was always here.”
Kwesi Abbensetts is the project’s co-collaborator and photographer. He said, when photographing each “griot,” he was looking to capture the spirit, reflect the beauty of the people and convey their presence. “I like the way it’s been done, because the spectrum is wide, and it reflects different age groups,” said Abbensetts. “I think they each stand firmly within the space of a griot.”
Jilani plans one more public installation of photos outside of Bed-Vyne Wine, and he says the final archive portion of the project should be complete by mid-November.
“I’m very interested in how to enter a community and acknowledge an existing community and not appropriate space without getting permission,” said Jilani. “That’s a very frontiersman, colonizing way to approach community.”
“The ultimate idea [with Griots in the Stuy] is that you can meet the griots and get to know the culture before you even start to make assumptions about the community.”