By VITTORIA BENZINE March, 2021
February 22nd opened ‘Love Letters to Harlem,’ the latest exhibition on view at Harlem-based Claire Oliver Gallery. This group show compiles four established photographers from the local neighborhood, including John Pinderhughes, Ruben Natal-San Miguel, Jeffrey Henson Scales, and Shawn Walker. A press release also notes that a portion of the show’s proceeds will benefit Harlem Community Relief Fund, a joint endeavor to combat food insecurity in Harlem.
“In the midst of this challenging year when we have all been so isolated,” states gallerist Claire Oliver in the press release, “we wanted to showcase the resiliency and celebrate the individuals, geography and culture of Harlem through the intimacy of photography while also supporting a vital organization that provides urgently needed aid to our community in this time of need.”
Claire Oliver’s fond history with the neighborhood predates the acquisition of their gallery’s current location on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard. As we socially distanced in the gallery itself, she recalled dinner dates with other couples in Sugar Hill where spontaneous conversations could stretch an eight-block walk to their dinner reservations an entire hour. “That's really what life is about,” she beamed. “It's like this overgrown family. Everybody knows everybody. Everybody is interested in what's going on, and everybody's willing to help everybody, which I think is why this show came together so easily.”
After a few years battling bureaucracy, Claire Oliver Gallery officially christened its Harlem location in January 2020. Two months later, Claire and her husband took their laptops, left Bisa Butler up on the walls, and shuttled to their farm upstate. “We moved up there and found out we both had COVID,” she intimated.
“Two weeks turned into six months.” In September, they did what they could with shaky leadership to re-open, contributing to the community while prioritizing safety. “As a gallery owner,” she explained, “we thought about it in terms of humans.”
This exhibition courts authentic intimacy. Claire said that she chose photography, as a medium, for its double-edged utility. “The head of it is, because it's a charity, I want to sell as many things as I can.” These editions can be sold eighteen times over, multiplying the gallery’s donations. “The heart of it being that these are people that actually live here,” she continued.
Since opening, some residents have recognized their friends and neighbors throughout the exhibition. Collective celebration offers a psychic salve, a meditation on good times, a promise for their eventual return. “It’s a love letter to everybody, from whatever walk of life, from whatever way,” she said. “Everybody who's in here is self confident, knows who they are, is proud of their heritage, proud of where they're going. They know where they've been. I felt like photography does that much more. It just seemed more grounded.”
“It hopefully will raise awareness in a bigger way that Harlem is super rich in culture,” Claire continued. Harlem is famous for its jazz and soul food, but there’s even more nourishing nuances beneath this vibrant surface. She told me that when they purchased her home in the area, the seller asked for an interview. “He literally said, ‘Well, why don't you come over for tea?’” she recalled. “That sounds very strange. I'm either gonna buy your house or I'm not gonna buy your house,” she thought to herself at the time.
“He wanted to feel that even though he was leaving, he was leaving someone in his place that would grow the community instead of tear it down,” she explained. “That's a good example of how everyone here feels.” Of course change is constant, but communities should be empowered to guide their own futures.
‘Love Letters to Harlem’ is a beacon of empowerment itself. “This is something I personally can make a difference in, as a gallerist,” Claire said of the show. “Of course, I could write a check to [Harlem Community Relief Fund], but that doesn't really do anything to raise awareness.”
Claire noted that the entire past year has deepened her relationships. For example, she received a one-off email from a museum director. The Zoom call that resulted “turned into this fascinating conversation… a conversation that, pre-COVID, would be maybe five or ten minutes,” she pointed out. The museum ended up purchasing work from another artist Claire represents, and plans to give the artist a solo show. “Maybe that's the lemonade that we've made out of COVID,” Claire observed. “It’ll probably change the way I do business forever.”
This great insight she’s leveraged, the deep value of authentic connection, feels so obvious, like it’s staring us right in the face. Time and again though, especially throughout recent history, authentic connection has proven the novel solution. Developments in art history resulted from interactions amongst artists, conversations between people. Connection itself is the very root of creativity. Something about this ‘art world’ elevates an arbitrary competition, pitting artists against each other when they’re better off banding together. “Picasso said, ‘Be anything but an artist,’” Claire offered. This path chooses its population, not the other way around.
Like this, ‘Love Letters to Harlem’ transcends its own community while remaining in direct communication with it. “Good photographs are not site specific in that they only speak to one place,” Claire said. The subjects depicted here—sometimes striking, silly, melancholic, joyous—elicit full registers on the collective emotional spectrum. “The narrative behind them, I think, is universal,” she added.
“We have work from the show going to LA, going to Minneapolis, going to Dallas, staying here in New York,” Claire reported. In the gleaming crown of its greater, resilient metropolis, Harlem is a standalone gem. “They've tried to say that New York was dead before—we always come back!” Claire laughed. “Don't count us out.” The citizens of Harlem, New York shine the full range of luminous visible light at Claire Oliver through April 3rd, blazing the way for a brighter future ahead. WM
Vittoria Benzine is a street art journalist and personal essayist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her affinity for counterculture and questioning has introduced her to exceptional artists and morally ambiguous characters alike. She values writing as a method of processing the world’s complexity. Send love letters to her via: @vittoriabenzine // firstname.lastname@example.org // vittoriabenzine.com
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