Walking along 125th Street, you find many T-shirt vendors. Most of them say “I Heart Harlem,” or “Harlem USA,” or “Michael Jackson,” and there are plenty with the Obamas. This array, however, was completely different. It contained many iconic images and slogans, and even a couple you wouldn’t associate with Harlem, such as Che Guevara. What struck me was that I really wasn’t looking at a T-shirt stand, but rather a brief and condensed history, the cultural and political legacy of the Black community. From baseball’s Jackie Robinson, to jazz’s John Coltrane, to singer Nina Simone, to television’s Good Times, these iconic figures symbolize a community and draw countless tourists through Harlem, wondering “Will I See Nina Simone Today?”
When I was invited to make a postcard for the Studio Museum, I knew I wanted to do something about growing up in Harlem. I considered photographing the house I grew up in, or the library on West 125th Street where I checked out so many books. But I kept coming back to my school pictures, in what they reveal of that time and the world outside their frames. I settled on the photo from kindergarten, 1968. As young children in the 1960s, we do not yet understand what it means to have our picture taken. We are bemused, unfocused—our gazes drift off in different directions. Today I have a moment of sympathy for the photographer, and wonder how he (or she? I doubt it) wrangled a class this large into formation. Our faces are unperformed. We are gathered in front of this flag, not yet knowing what it stands for, or what we would come to think of it in time.
Whether they are for sale or just open to the public for touring, otherwise private areas in Harlem to which I have gained access sparked an interest in investigating the present, past and future of these spaces. From hidden courtyards and well-appointed townhouses to empty apartments, I sought to document the spirit and character of these spaces before time and change alter their landscapes.
My work tends to look at social contexts, particularly institutions and the affective relations they house. When I think of the Studio Museum, I think of a location, a mission, a space, a collection and, most importantly, specific people who have brought their subjectivities to the project of the institution. Some of my best friends are Studio Museum curators. When invited to make a Harlem Postcard, my first thoughts were of genres of street photography and a kind of portraiture that presents Harlem as a situation. I decided to move that idea inside, into the curatorial offices of the Museum, using my decade-long relationship with the institution as a vantage from which to view the invisible operations of affective labor. An office window to 125th Street connects the people to the location, the mission to the space, and sheds light on the lived relationships among the Black art workers that animate a remarkable institution.