about history, trees, the weather, or whatever else captures my fancy, on some occasions I find myself dumbstruck.
I have written before about Seneca Village, the community of African-Americans that flourished between the 1820’s and the 1850s in Central Park before it was Central Park. New York’s great green gem of a park came about through the brilliance of landscape designers Olmsted and Vaux. The Park that we see as natural was in fact anything but, brought about by huge amounts of dynamite and landfill and the labor of who knows how many men. Workers moved nearly 5 million cubic yards of stone, earth, and topsoil, built 36 bridges and arches, and constructed 11 overpasses over the transverse roads. They also planted 500,000 trees, shrubs, and vines. Those gracious hills and dales were all built by hand.
Slight problem: those pesky families who already occupied a chunk of the property designated for the Park. They had around 50 homes, 3 churches, cemeteries and a school, and people determined to make their living often times in the precincts of Manhattan itself. Real people, real lives. Rather than the make-believe greensward then rising up in the middle of the city. The citizens who had pushed for the Park, the uppertens who had voyaged to Europe and enviously gazed upon the grand parks in London and the other major cities there, would certainly not be thwarted by the likes of Seneca Village. They had only to breathe in the right direction, and eminent domain dissolved the community, whose residents were absorbed into the rest of the city. What was lost: a strong black presence in New York (also, it must be said, some Germans as well), long before there was a Harlem or any other neighborhood-of-color.
Of course, Central Park is great. It is truly amazing to go up to the Metropolitan Museum’s rooftop and look upon the swathe of emerald that rolls out ahead of you.
Which brings me to the subject of this post. Fairly easy to get to (it’s just off the armor display) at the Metropolitan is a new production that is an homage to Seneca Village. I have wondered why no one seemed to be giving any props to that history, even though some ambitious narrative signs appeared a few years back in the Park offering information. Of course park-goers just walked right on past on their way to the Sheep Meadow or other sun-bathing spots.
You will not walk past this display. The Met’s creative curators built a period room inspired by Seneca Village. It does not resembled the museum’s other period rooms, which I love despite (or maybe because of) their fustiness.
Even the Frank Lloyd Wright modernistic period room has a caught-in-amber flavor.
The Met’s take on Seneca Village is quite different. A long-term installation, Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room “will unsettle the very idea of a period room,” according to the museum’s information. And here I admit that upon first viewing, I might have preferred a room furnished with the few Seneca Village artifacts archaeologists dug up in Central Park.
They do exist, or at least early New York artifacts can be seen here. A comb, complete with a chain design said to represent slavery.
A pottery urn emblazoned with “Corlears Hook,” a prominent waterfront neighborhood in the old days, manufactured by a black New York artisan.
But this display incorporates not only the past but the present and future as well (as my artist friend Josefa gently reminded me when I grumbled about the look of the place.) Lead Curator and Designer Hannah Beachler says, “This project is important to me because it is a necessary conversation with time, loss, community, and hope.” In African tradition, all times are coterminous.
So there is a head by an African sculptor made of black leather high heels and supposed to represent the “sole/soul,” inspired by masks from Cameroon.
The room itself is a kitchen. You know, table, chairs, etc.
Your typical futuristic 5-screen tv.
This kitchen is presided over by a kind of ornate goddess homemaker. Looks like me on one of my good days.
To the side hang paintings. “Andrea Motley,” based on a photo, depicts the first woman and first black woman to serve as a deep sea diver for the Army.
Another work by activist, filmmaker and writer Tourmaline involved research into the history of underrepresented queer and trans figures of color in 19th and 20th century New York.
So the installation becomes a mash up of the past, the present and the future. Much of which was lost to us when the real Seneca Village was rolled over to give us the park — occupied by the Met, which gives us Rembrandt and Pollock and Picasso (my favorite, his portrait of Gertrude Stein).
Okay, a hifalutin’ quote from someone a lot more knowledgeable than me: another curator, Dr. Commander says,
“The untold story of Seneca Village underscores that we walk on hallowed ground right here in New York City. Aspects of our history often fall out of conversation because of the passage of time. In other cases, they have been effectively buried or intentionally silenced. When these significant histories resurface, we ought to show reverence for those who came before whose lives and sacrifices paved the way for our very being. In this period room, archival and archaeological truths meet a range of art from across several centuries, cultures, and geographies. With the guidance of informed speculation, we imagine what was, what might have been, and what is yet to be.”
Leaving the Museum, I realized that besides my beloved fusty period rooms we were now lucky enough to have a curious new addition. “Every period room is predicated on the fiction of authenticity,” says Co-curator Sarah Lawrence, describing the exhibit’s purpose. “Using this fiction as our starting point, how could we imagine the domestic spaces of individuals previously omitted from our period rooms?”