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Gateway to Criticism
Proposed Chinatown sculpture stirs controversy in New York
A sculpture proposed for a traffic triangle in New York’s Chinatown neighborhood is being criticized by some members of the community for its "stack of tin can"-like appearance. The art piece is a product of the Gateways to Chinatown project, a collaborative effort by the city’s Department of Transportation (DOT), local development corporation Chinatown Partnership, and the Van Alen Institute to “engender pride of place, foster connectivity, and reinforce cultural and social identity within Manhattan’s Chinatown.” Focusing on the plaza where Canal Street forks and Walker Street begins, organizers oversaw an open competition to select which artist would work with the project’s $1 million budget.
While the primary purpose of the project was, according to director of communications at Van Alen Alisha Levin, to “foster connectivity and better enable way-finding with a new public landmark,” selectors also sought a proposal that “responded to the site’s history and context.” Out of 80 total submissions, an installation by Chinese-Australian artist Lindy Lee was ultimately chosen. Lee partnered with two New York-based companies—architecture firm Levenbetts and public art fabrication studio UAP (Urban Art Projects)—to facilitate the structural design and installation of the project.
As renderings released last month indicate, the piece consists of a series of perforated cylinders stacked irregularly above the sidewalk. Inspired by traditional Chinese drum towers, the form of each component is reflective of both drums and the cylindrical rooftop water towers that have come to represent New York City. Titled The Dragon’s Roar, the proposal maintains a level of flexibility through its minimal impact on the traffic triangle’s ground plane. Even with the sculpture installed, the space would still be able to accommodate a small kiosk or seating for social gatherings.
As with most contemporary art that is proposed for urban public space, The Dragon’s Roar has received plenty of criticism from some members of the community. Certain residents have argued that its overall form, which makes only abstract reference to Chinese culture, has nothing to do with the local neighborhood and its heritage. Others have compared the drum-like cylinders to tin cans, complaining that the installation is unsightly and should not become a neighborhood landmark. While organizers of this year’s competition did engage with local community members at various stages in the process to determine what should be placed on the traffic triangle, many insist that outreach efforts were inadequate. The controversy is reminiscent of a similar incident from one year earlier, when residents of Chinese descent called a "Dog-Man" sculpture proposed for Chatham Square demonic and whitewashed. Protests over that piece eventually forced the city to relocate it to Foley Square.
As for The Dragon’s Roar, Levin told AN that Van Alen will “take all feedback in earnest” and will continue working with DOT, community boards, and neighborhood stakeholders to make certain that the final product reflects its cultural and social context. Before Community Board 3 weighs whether to approve the sculpture in September, detractors have promised to make their voices heard.
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Museum of Modern Art receives massive gift of African contemporary artwork
French-Italian art collector Jean Pigozzi has gifted New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) a substantial collection of contemporary artwork from across Africa. The 45 pieces included in the donation feature work by Sierra Leonean artist Abu Bakarr Mansaray, Malian photographer Seydou Keïta, and Congolese sculptor Bodys Isek Kingelez, whose fantastical models of cityscapes formed the retrospective exhibition Bodys Isek Kingelez: City Dreams at MoMA last year. According to MoMA, Pigozzi’s is the largest single gift of African art that the museum has ever received and will contribute significantly to future displays of its permanent collection.
Born in Paris to Italian businessman and Simca-founder Henri Pigozzi, Jean Pigozzi amassed his fortune through inheritance and a variety of enterprises, including photography and fashion design. He jumpstarted his collection of African contemporary art in 1989, soon after seeing the exhibit Magiciens de la Terre at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Curator André Magnin lent considerable guidance as Pigozzi accumulated upwards of 10,000 pieces, now widely recognized as one of the largest collections of African contemporary art in the world. Pigozzi has maintained his holdings as the Contemporary African Art Collection (CAAC) in Geneva, which has no permanent galleries for exhibition. Pieces from the CAAC have been lent to museums and galleries across Africa, Europe, and North America for a range of temporary exhibits.
The move by Pigozzi sheds light on a broader effort by MoMA to overcome its longstanding focus on American and European modernism. The museum’s leaders have been appealing to donors with collections that highlight other regions of the world, including Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, who has given Latin American artwork to the institution twice since 2016. For MoMA, the acquisition may represent an opportunity for both redemption and growth. Between 1984 and 1985, the museum held an exhibit titled ‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, which many have excoriated for promoting reductive, racist, and deeply ingrained notions of African inferiority. The Pompidou show that catalyzed Pigozzi’s collection was largely considered a rebuttal to MoMA’s own curatorial efforts, prompting Pigozzi himself to spend much of his life advocating for African contemporary art as on-par with, and often more interesting than, Western examples.
The growing stature of African contemporary art on the global stage extends well beyond MoMA’s walls. Earlier this year, the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair made its Manhattan debut at New York’s Industria, six years after its founding in London and four years after popping up in Brooklyn. In 2016, the international auction house Sotheby’s opened a department dedicated to African art in London, which has been frequented not only by Europeans but also by wealthy collectors from Nigeria, Kenya, and elsewhere in Africa. MoMA is likely looking to get in on the action, and Pigozzi’s gift presents the institution with its best opening yet.
While it is still unclear exactly how curators will incorporate Pigozzi’s pieces into the MoMA’s permanent collection displays, they are sure to play a role in the museum’s continuing growth. MoMA’s newly expanded facility, including its reconfigured permanent collection galleries, will open to the public on October 21, 2019.