Old Harlem…New Harlem

Harlem Baptismal: by Lisa DuBois

 Eyewitnesses To a Community in Transition

In his classic essay “Things Remembered Times Past: On Bird, Bird Watching and Jazz,” the great Afro-American novelist and essayist Ralph Ellison observed “Music gives resonance to memory.  True enough, but this claim is even truer of photographs, especially when shot by artist who are perceptive observers with a cultivated eye.

This is he quality of work the viewer will find at “Old Harlem/New Harlem, an exhibition opening  at 6 oclock on Friday August 10, in the beautiful Rio II Galleries located at 583 Riverside Drive. Nestled near the corner of 135th street, the gallery offers a commanding view of the Hudson River from their spacious sun deck.  It is an ideal space for a celebration of art.

The pictures at this exhibition is sponsored by the Broadway Housing Communitiesm and features a group of distinguished American photographers with deep roots in Harlem; engaged artist that have spent many years visually recording the rituals, rhythms, color and spirit of Harlem life.  It is a collection of poignant images that touch the soul  and could even  inspire great music; like Mussorsky’s famous piano concerto “Pictures at an Exhibition.”  The panoramic vision of Harlem life represented in these photographs is epic in their sweep.

Luckily, through the miracle of recorded sound the atmosphere will be alive with the sound of that greatest painter of Harlem life: Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington.  Nobody loved Harlem like Duke Ellington.  In his autobiography, “Music is My Mistress,” Ellington tells us that when he first came to Harlem from Washington D.C. during the 1920’s, the people were so colorful and stylish it  “looked like scenes from the Arabian Nights.”

Since Ellington was a talented painter who had studied at the prestigious “Pratt Institute” in Brooklyn before he ever had a band, he tells us that every one of his compositions began with a visual image.  Hence in the tone poems of Duke Ellington we hear sonic portraits of Harlem life in all its heroic splendor and myriad expressions of pathos and bathos that mirror the human condition in this historically Afro-American village in uptown Manhattan.  That’s why Duke’s music is the perfect background sound for the talented poet Lydia Elizabeth to read her panegyric, “Harlem Rapsody;” a poem she will premiere at the exhibition.

 Miles Davis

A great musician and fashion icon

Although the photographers in this exhibition recorded a later era of Harlem life, a period of turmoil and transition, it is a rich tale that they tell.  Great photography involves more than mere technical expertise; although like jazz performance, mastery of technique is a precondition to greatness and therefore assumed. But to be a truly great photographer also requires intelligence, artistic vision and humanistic values.  This is what distinguishes the artist from mere technicians.

 Bob Marley


Through the Lens of Kwame Brathwaite

As with any serious exhibition the final production reflects the taste and vision of the curators.  And in the present instance we have the unusual circumstance where the curators – Tony Barboza, John Penderhuges and Lisa Dubois – also happen to be great artist. Thus the selection process resembles a kind of peer review, which insures a high degree of quality control.  The photographers are all first rate, many have been widely exhibited nationally and internationally,  and some are legendary: Kwame Brathwaite, Tony Barboza, Adger Cowans, et al.

                                                                              Gordon Parks!

Captured for All Times by Adger Cowans

This unique exhibition of graphic images of Harlem life – captured by visual alchemists who are honoring the grand tradition begun by James Van der Zee at the beginning of the 20th century – is a tonic to the senses and food for the soul.  So come out and mingle with some beautiful people in a beautiful setting, and set yo spirit a dancing among the myriad magical images that conjure the spirit of Harlem….past and present.  Be there or be square!

 Lena Horne: Beautiful in the Autumn of life


A Portrait by Lisa DuBois




Playthell George Benjamin

Political Commentator and Cultural Critic
WBAI Evening News
Harlem New York
August 8, 2012

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