Schomburg Photo Exhibit Examines the Changing Face of Harlem
By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — The photos range from images of Malcolm X on Broadway to protests against the police shooting of Amadou Diallo, Africans dressed in colorful gear to a little girl frolicking in a Harlem fire hydrant.
The pictures, now on display at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, were taken by a newly-formed collective of photographers who call themselves the New Harlem Renaissance Photographers, and show the impact that Harlem has had on the religion, dance, music and fashion of the African Diaspora.
"For me, the single most important thing about this exhibit is that these photographers work in Harlem and have special insight into the nature of Harlem," said Howard Dodson Jr., director of the Schomburg and co-curator of the Black History Month exhibit entitled 'Harlem Views/Diasporan Visions: The New Harlem Renaissance Photographers.'
Some photos, like those of Fidel Castro's visit in the 1960s or one of Harry Belafonte getting an autograph from James Baldwin, show Harlem's historic character. Others, like those of the Senegalese community here, show the area's diversity amidst continued gentrification.
"This is evidence of the continuing black presence but also of the diversity. There are changes due to an increased presence of Africans, but that sometimes gets lost in the black and white debate," said Dodson.
The exhibit came about when Sen. Bill Perkins was at a memorial service in October for photographer Eugene "Kwame" Gervin who was known for capturing almost every important rally and protest within New York City.
Perkins felt that photographers, like Gervin, who spent their careers or free time documenting life in Harlem were not being given enough exposure, according to Perkins' aide, Omawale Clay.
Clay was given the assignment of pulling together some work from photographers with the idea of putting on an exhibit funded by Perkins' office. As the photographers gathered, they began organizing themselves.
"They talked about the exhibit as a powerful reflection of the richness of the documenting and archiving of our history and how they wanted to use this event as a springboard to preserve that level of documentation," said Clay.
"As they sat and talked about Harlem, they said Harlem has been the center of the black community and the center of the diaspora. There is always a connection of Harlem being a central hub for the African world and so much of their work deals with the history of Harlem, but also what has happened in the diaspora," he added.
Some of the members of the collective are professional photographers while others have never exhibited their work.
"For those who live here, this is our home and the home we know and love is changing. The changes a community experiences can destroy it or make it a better place," said photographer Hakim Mutlaq Inniss, whose photos of the Rev. Al Sharpton and Harlem's African American Day parade appear in the exhibit.
"We think Harlem is better, but it is also displacing a lot of the people who kept it alive. It's like dealing with a vanishing cultural mix and we are trying to impart what this means to us."
The collective hopes the exhibit will eventually go out on tour, and have begun working on a catalogue. They have also started to induct new, younger members, said Clay.
Christina Hiras, 19, a student at the New School, said the exhibit made her think about the power and breadth of the community.
"In many of the pictures there are people in the background, which means there's another story happening in the background," Hiras said. "It makes you think. It makes the gears turn."