RIVAA Celebrates Black History with 'Cultural Preservation' Exhibit

The RI Jazz Collaborative Band, featuring Lynn Beville, provided live music at the opening, by Alexandre Tolipan

This year’s annual Black History Month Exhibition, running through March 3, is entitled Cultural Preservation. Curated by Lorraine Williams in partnership with the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation and RIVAA (Roosevelt Island Visual Arts Association), the exhibit showcases a diverse range of African and African-American voices and visions. On February 9, at Gallery RIVAA, a wonderful opening kicked off the exhibit with a five-member jazz ensemble, commentary from some of the featured artists, and spoken word performances by David Lamb and members of the Roosevelt Island Youth Program.

Lorraine Williams, smiling, right, by Alexandre Tolipan

“This year our theme is Cultural Preservation, because, as you know, behind every work of art there’s a history,” said Williams, standing at a mic in one of her signature berets and big sunglasses. “This is not just putting the art and the posters on the wall. Every artist has a history, and it’s very important to know the history behind the artwork. It’s not always beautiful. “ She went on, “Preservation of the arts is not something we should have to be standing here today talking about. Because we’ve been here since 1619 when the slaves first landed in Jamestown, Virginia, four hundred years ago.”

Mona Coichy Haigler, by Rachel Dowling

Mona Coichy Haigler, a Manhattanite from Haiti, is new to the exhibit this year. Haigler’s newest pieces are painted on wood. She talks about her love of nature, and said that while she lives and works in the city, every opportunity she gets to leave New York City she travels upstate to spend time in nature. “That goes straight to my work,” she says. Born into a very artistic family, Haigler has been creating art from the time she was small. She says Haiti has a vibrant arts culture which also had a big impact on her as an artist.

Haigler's paintings all feature a heart shape, by Rachel Dowling

Haigler said that her recent works on wood evolved out of a photography project she was doing called The Four Seasons. Working in collaboration with another artist during this time inspired her to use wood as her medium. “I had been working with acrylics for so many years, but once I touched this, I felt like I was at home. Not that I wasn’t at home before, but now I felt even more at home. I just fell in love.”

As we stood in front of her wall of four large pieces, Haigler pointed out that there is a heart shape in each painting. “We are going through such a violent moment [in history] I thought it was the perfect time to bring in the hearts. Whether it is right side up, or upside down, there is a heart in every painting.” Haigler is a member of a nonprofit group called Ayitistik which puts on a group show every year. Comprised of six artists, the group just completed a show at Caldwell University in New Jersey.

Work by Micheline Hess, on exhibition at RIVAA Gallery, by Alexandre Tolipan

Artist Micheline Hess said her mother started taking her to the Art Students League for classes when she was in fifth grade, “because I was drawing all over everything and you know, my teachers had a real problem with that, my homework was a mess, my desk was a mess. So she tried to help me get an outlet for my creativity, and always tried to encourage me, and brought me art supplies.” Hess’s mother stood beside as she spoke, supporting her still. “And I had a few really good teachers along the way that really encouraged me.”

Hess, an Islander, is an animator who has also written and illustrated children’s books, including one called The Island Cats of Cunga Ree. She uses the iPhone app Procreate to render whimsical and fantastical images usually featuring black women. “I like having a lot of storytelling in my work. I enjoy having a narrative quality to my pieces, and I like focusing on black people as my characters because growing up it wasn’t something that I saw very often. So that was something that I wanted to manifest into reality.”

“It was very therapeutic as well,” she continues, because I just manifested these different adventures on paper or on digital canvas.” She says some of the pieces in the show are spiritual explorations dealing with elements of nature. “On that wall is fire, and a girl with a baby phoenix… And on that wall is water… she indicates the canvas showing a wild haired woman in flip flops on a galloping horse while the icy white clutches of winter cloy at her legs as she “tries to make it into her spring zone.” Winter’s not really my favorite time of year,” she said, laughing.

Aziza, left, and Ida Owens flank RIVAA Vice President Esther Cohen

Hess and her mother were not the only mother-daughter duo at the event. Ida Owens and her daughter Aziza, were a proud presence at the opening in striking headwraps and bold earrings which might have been the subject of one of Owens’ portraits. One wall features her large, vibrantly colored pastels depicting faces of African people in traditional headdresses which seem to be burgeoning with hidden treasures.

Owens explains the responsibility she feels towards the preservation of black history, “You’re kind of the keeper of the gate to preserve that history. Because otherwise there’s nothing.” She goes on to say, “The human race is all about people, and beliefs and rituals and it has to be preserved because it will just become unknown. And you have to hold on to what you know. You’re the story teller. What comes out of YOUR mouth,” she says.

Aziza also spoke to the urgency of preserving black culture through jazz and representations of jazz musicians performing. “I take my sketch pad, and my paints to shows, and I also take my camera. Jazz will never be a dying art form, but it’s not as popular as it has been in the past for younger generations. Families, parents, are not passing on that information. I feel through my art, my work informs and educations. And I’m learning too, about my own culture, my own history, as I look more in depth into the foundation of jazz music.”

Judging from the large crowd of attendees packing the gallery Saturday night and representing multiple generations, that culture, that torch is still burning with a fierce, undaunted fire.

Admission is free and open to the public.

The hours for the exhibition are Wednesdays and Fridays from 6:00 to 9:00 pm, Saturdays and Sundays from 11:00 to 5:00 pm. Gallery RIVAA is located at 527 Main Street.

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