If You Build It, a sprawling exhibit hosted by the arts group No Longer Empty, is an impressive ode to architecture, community activism and the rich history of Harlem’s Sugar Hill neighborhood. That’s because If You Build It is located within a new affordable housing development in Sugar Hill, at 155th Street and St. Nicolas Avenue, designed by the African architect David Adjaye.
Artwork fills the 3rd and 9th floors of the building, which is in the last stages of construction and not yet occupied. The development is striking from the outside; inside, the apartments are bright and spacious. It attracted a grand total of 50,000 applications for only 124 affordable apartments, and the desperate need for affordability in New York is addressed through the art.
The exhibit features a large number of paintings, installations, media, sculpture and performances by more than 20 artists. Many of the artists are local, using their art to directly address the community of Sugar Hill as well as its rich African American roots. The Sugar Hill Smiles installation, by artist Nari Ward, is a collection of tin cans mimicking the design of mass-manufactured preservative cans. It also addresses the way Harlem is marketed for profit by real estate investors who aren’t necessarily invested in the neighborhood. Visitors of the exhibit are invited to smile into the cans, which are mirrored inside. They will then be labeled, sealed and sold for $10, with proceeds supporting a local educational institution.
While Ward’s piece is in the “common space” of the apartment building, most of the artwork is within the apartments themselves. Artist Kameelah Janan Rasheed used an apartment to document her years of struggling with homelessness with her family. Her collection of photography, books and various objects is meant to be interactive — the audience is invited to install their own photographs, letters and notes within the space. Another apartment bedroom features a video installation by Dread Scott, who filmed black men from Brooklyn and the U.K., stating the number of times they’ve been stopped by the police without cause. In another room, you’ll find photographs by artist Bayeté Ross Smith chronicling everyday Harlem residents. His accompanying video installation tells oral histories about the neighborhood.
By the end of your visit, you may even stumble upon a live performance or two — over the weekend, a pianist and trumpet player improvised in a unit’s living room while a woman painted on a long scroll to the music. Overall it’s a rich and engaging experience; it feels as intimate as if you had walked right into someone’s living room. And in a way, that’s exactly what you’re doing.
If You Build It lasts until August 10 and is open Thursday and Friday from 3 to 7pm, Saturday and Sunday from 1 to 6 pm and Wednesday by appointment.