COCA’s mission statement, “Enriching lives and building community through the arts,” envisions a more imaginative, connected and inclusive St. Louis. Infusing this vision into its programming has made COCA a leader in arts innovation and the fourth largest multidisciplinary community arts center in America.
“Harlem Renaissance: Contemporary Response,” currently at COCA’s Millstone Gallery, references a creative period in African-American history when many African Americans moved north — and when Jacob Lawrence, Romare Beardon, Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes and many other artists and writers influenced American culture.
With this history as backdrop, COCA invited established St. Louis artists and emerging local artists to submit works inspired by the Harlem Renaissance for this juried exhibition.
Brock Seals, in his painting “Kings Blues,” places a saxophonist in black silhouette against noisy, dancing psychedelic colors — swirls of warm reds, pinks and yellows interspersed with cool greens, blues and violets. Picture Charlie Parker and his saxophone wailing in a New York speakeasy, as African music, Dixieland and blues merge into improvisational jazz.
The tumble, twist and roll of Seals’ musical notes capture a movement of American history when, within a decade, musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Count Basie infused the Harlem jazz explosion with new rhythms of cool — radiating from Uptown to the downtown Village Vanguard, then out to mainstream American culture.
Seals’ dark figure captures what Ralph Ellison calls the “invisible man,” the unseen individual black man, in an era when black-generated music was played for “whites-only” patrons at the Cotton Club and other night spots.
Seals brings irony forward in another of his exhibited works, “Miss Me With That,” as the young artist illustrates two boxers in a ring. One has just thrown a punch but missed. His feet are now so awkwardly placed that his opponent is in perfect position for the unseen right glove to deliver a knock-out to the jaw.
By painting directly on a Claude Monet poster of water lilies as background for his boxers, Seals connects movement and balance with the question of value. Though European culture has long been the gold standard, today’s young artists confront such assumptions with a life and death urgency.
“The Other I,” a large photograph by Yvonne Osei, confronts the viewer with black-face in reverse. An African-American man, his face covered in white pigment, stands in front of crushed automobiles, devalued to their weight in steel. Camouflaged against the white detritus of technology, he is there but not there, his head lost in the junk.
This witty in-your-face conversation about value is a painful reminder of a long history of cruel black-face humor and hatred, directed at a large segment of our population.
While COCA’s Harlem Renaissance exhibition at Millstone Gallery presents the clash of contemporary values, COCA’s recent St. Louis Map Room project demonstrated exemplary connectedness.
This interactive program brought various groups, including St. Louis Area Foodbank, Trailnet and Diversity Awareness Partnership, to the near north-side Stevens Middle School to engage with socio/economic/political data, layered over both vintage and contemporary maps of St. Louis.
Superimposed images of information were projected over maps. These patterns of movement and behaviors were then, with the assist of a robot, traced by groups onto wall-sized canvases.
Thirty interpretive maps of the city were created by people seeking to engage and understand the lived experience of St. Louis residents, their relationships and their interpretation of place. For example, one map showed the difference in life expectancy (as much as 15 years) from one ZIP code to another.
The project, funded by RAC, PNC Arts Alive and the Missouri Humanities Council, enabled COCA to bring in New York data artist Jer Thorp as artist-in-residence. Thorp was commissioned to create a meaningful data art piece for St. Louis, which culminated in the COCA Map Room.
Harnessing his artistic team to demonstrate significant patterns and movements of people in an urban area, Thorp created a tool, an instrument for re-visioning how urban societal change can happen. The project, just closed, will be digitized and archived at the Missouri Historical Museum.
The Harlem Renaissance exhibition was presented in tandem with COCA’s 30th Anniversary production of Uptown, which closed April 9. Choreographed by Matthew Rushing, rehearsal director at Alvin Ailey, American Dance Theater, and drawing heavily upon the artistic and intellectual work of W.E.B. Dubois and others, “Uptown” created a vibrant tour through 1920s Harlem. It was first performed by Ailey in 2009. Rushing reimagined it to include all five of COCA’s pre-professional dance, voice and theatre companies, as well as musicians from Jazz St. Louis.
COCA’s Map Room project and Uptown production, along with Harlem Renaissance, explore place from the perspective of movements of people and identity. These diverse and imaginative arts programs at COCA demonstrate that “Art Changes Lives” as they vivify COCA’s mission to enrich lives and build community.
“Harlem Renaissance: Contemporary Response” will be on display at COCA’s Millstone Gallery, 524 Trinity Ave. in University City, through May 14.