WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE (BLM), 2020, by Andre Russell
In February of 2018 I was employed by a junior apparel company in Manhattan. I finally landed the job I wanted, in the city I wanted, but the racial hypnosis did well to also reach my fashion realm.
During that time the clothing store H&M released an ad that depicted a young man of African descent wearing a green hooded sweater that read “COOLEST MONKEY IN THE JUNGLE”. The ad insulted me on so many levels. It was Black History Month and the ad received much backlash. I am an African American who can do better. Not because I say so but because I do.
That same February I was awarded the title of Fine Artist by the Jersey City Artist Certification Board in the medium of print making. This provided a platform for my voice. “REAL!” Is my brand for apparel and other graphic ARTS.
On the last night of May, my neighborhood in Soho erupted in violence and looting. Breaking glass, gun shots, helicopters, sirens. Standing on my fire escape, I watched big bags slung over running shoulders, motorcycles, bikes, fancy cars spinning and zooming. The next morning, I photographed the inside of Gucci, Dior, Coach with nothing left but a few hangers and naked mannequins.
That day Soho, the birthplace of contemporary art in New York City fifty years ago, became a boarded-up ghost town.
In some ways I was reminded of what it was like to be here in the 1970s, the neighborhood dark, no commerce. It was artists who lived in Soho who transformed the neighborhood that then gave rise to what now had been destroyed. With almost all of Soho a blank canvas of plywood, if there ever was a moment for artists to express ourselves, it was this moment. I rode through the neighborhood with Miriam Novalle, who founded the T Salon at Mercer and Prince under the Guggenheim in the 1992 and mentioned it, as did Bobbi Van, an artist in San Miguel Allende, Mexico reporting painters covering boarded-up Oakland. We galvanized other artist friends. Word got out and on June 6th, there were about 100 of us on the streets, painting and posting.
Calling ourselves Art 2♥SoHo we put the call out to artists to bring optimism, healing, and love by painting messages of compassion and unity. By the second week, the neighborhood was on fire with artistic calls to action and revolution for social change addressing critical issues of our time - from covid to voting to police brutality and black lives matter. Over 400 panels were turned into art by world renown artists, those who had never painted before, six year olds and seventy-six year olds, people of every color, race, sexual identification, from the neighborhood and other boroughs and cities, channeling their convictions from the provocative and political to uplifting and spiritual.
I have been reminded through this painful time of when I lived in LA through the Riots of 1992. I gave cameras to African-Americans, Latinos and Koreans living in the areas of the looting to understand racism from the inside. South Central LA: Inside Voices was, to my knowledge, the first film on television (Showtime) made by “real people” with such ethnic diversity. I made that film with an earnest hope that the truth told would help create social change. That we are here again now is horrifying.
These images in Soho are a testimony to this time. With voices raging across the world, may real meaningful social change bringing equality, justice and unity be envisioned and realized now.
Photographers: Maxi Cohen, Pamela Giaroli, John Mazlich
Art by: Andre Russell Nick C. Kirk Stefanie Frank Gordon Kindlon Maeve Cahill @av_artist Ariana Lennon Jno-Baptiste Deena Paige-Fischer @optimonyc @saynosleep @_wewerby Ella T. Barnes and many more.