Has African art finally found a place in New York?

By Nick Ogutu | African Education in Focus

As one of the proprietors of Harlem Artisan Market, I know this is a difficult to answer because African art and culture is so rich, diverse and deep that it could occupy the entire city itself. As part of an initiative for Safari Yangu and a few street vendors, Harlem Artisan Market opened its doors in December 2018 as a pop-up indoor market on 105 west 125th street in Harlem. Safari Yangu is an organization that was founded in 2017 by a group of volunteer students at Columbia University. Its purpose is to empower immigrants through advocacy and create different platforms to tell their unique stories.

Safari Yangu’s interest in working with street vendors in Harlem was inspired by the large number of immigrants in the community who are street vendors with untapped potential and skills; vendors who sell a variety of products such as handcrafted items like baskets to mud cloth, sculptures, jewelry, paintings and beadwork. Despite their valuable skills, talents and knowledge, systemic and institutional barriers continue to block these vendors from their full potential.

Noticing the challenges immigrants and street vendors face, Safari Yangu, with no funding or external support, collaborated with numerous vendors in order to form a working group that helps mitigate some of these challenges.

In recent years, statistics have shown that vendors have been victimized by New York’s aggressive “quality of life” crackdown. They have been denied access to vending licenses and powerful business groups have closed the streets to them. In addition, they are victims of excessive ticketing for minor violations, like vending too close to a crosswalk, which is a violation that big business should also incur but scarcely do.

The New York property landscape, especially commercial spaces, is paved with obstacles. Even though there is an abundance of vacant stores and many local businesses are looking to fill the spaces, most landlords prefer corporate tenants. That is why it took many agonizing months for us to find a willing property owner. On the first day of December 2018, vendors began moving in and setting up their booths. 

Within weeks after opening, many small business people visited in search of a space, having lost their stores of several years to corporate companies like Whole Foods and Marshalls. Recognizing how this gentrification directly affects the minority community and black and brown people, I’ve applied my social work skills from Columbia University by utilizing our office as a place for people from the community to come together in a therapeutic and supportive environment. 

The market has quickly captured the heart of the community. It is not only a selling space but also a community center that hosts trainings, meetings, and various events. Vendors in the African diaspora have finally found a needed space to share their skills and knowledge and to make a living. Most of the merchandise are handcrafted and unique. 

Bah, a 65-year-old father of five, started as a tour guide at the age of 13, in his native country Mali. He is now the world’s largest collector of African cup art pieces. Despite his lack of Western style education, he has taught graduate students in different parts of the world. He said, “This market gives us the opportunity and a platform to correct some of the misinformation about our art, education and our culture”. His art pieces have been exhibited in many museums and colleges however he has only ever been paid a pittance and his name has never been recognized in the provenance.

Djinaba, who is one of the managers at the market, is well known in Harlem and at Columbia University Broadway Street Market for her unique designs of jewelry and antique clothing. She said, “Our family arrived in Harlem from Guinea in 1999 and none of us could speak even a word of English but it didn’t take long before people noticed our skills in jewelry and dress making”. Most of her clients do not realize that she is a trained accountant from Baruch college. Similar stories are repeated many times among the African immigrants.

Bola, originally from Nigeria, is a 64-year-old clothes designer who recently lost her store space of 28 years on 5th Avenue in Harlem and is excited to be at this market. She said, “I learned dressmaking from my father and that is what I have been doing since I came with my husband to this country in 1977.” Even though she later went to the Fashion Institute of Technology for technical training in New York, she explained that most of her skills were acquired as a young girl in the village.

As I write this article, the market has just received good news from the landlord about the extension to April 2019. We will soon begin discussions and advocacy for the months of May and June. The struggle continues. I hope by the time you are reading this article, the market will still be operating!

Website: http://www.safariyangu.org Email: nho2106@columbia.edu

Nick Ogutu President, Amnesty International,

Read from source | African Education in Focus

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