The East Harlem arts institution, Hi-ARTS, is sharing its time and space to host “Center Focus,” the inaugural group exhibition co-curated by Black Women Photographers (BWP).
“Center Focus” displays the work of seven members of BWP, which describes itself as a “global community” that is determined to break a notion that commissioning Black creatives is a difficult feat. Founded in 2020 amid protests that ignited a “racial reckoning,” BWP prides itself as a space for Black women to seek recognition and opportunity, promoting artists through means that they can be discovered in the art world. This exhibition’s collaboration between Hi-ARTS and BWP will accentuate the individual journey of photographers, with portraits of Black women and pieces that portray the world through the lens of a black woman.
“The exhibition was fully inspired by the work of the seven photographers, so I pulled from their individual creative journeys and the stories they shared with me,” said Center Focus co-curator, Joyous Pierce.
Pierce, the programming manager at Hi-ARTS, carried the thought of giving the photographers a space for their work to be celebrated.
“The energy of the exhibition is also grounded by the spirit of belonging that we all search for,” said Pierce. “I was personally inspired while I was in conversation with a friend and a mentor by the words bell hooks speaks on belonging. Belonging is primarily about finding and making home a place where the soul can rest.”
Co-curator and founder of Black Women Photographers, Polly Irungu, spoke about this being the first exhibition she’s co-curated, and the moving stories the photographers shared with her during the selection process.
“Really when I was able to listen to them explain the choices for their work and the stories behind it, I had to turn my camera off––I was getting emotional,” said Irungu, who recalled listening to the raw emotions and items that the photographers shared with her. “These are seven people who have their own respectable journeys who faced so many things––the struggle, the pain, the joy, the tears. There’s so much within each person’s journey and I think ‘Center Focus’ will help shine a light on that.”
Andrea K. Castillo is one of the seven “Center Focus” photographers and hails from Brooklyn. The three works she has in the exhibition are inspired by her Belizean heritage and Brooklyn-born pride.
“For me, in regards to my inspiration, I’m constantly inspired by home and homeland,” said Castillo, who adds that her piece stands out from the others due to the absence of people in her photos. “I feel more connected to space than individual people and I think by showing that, the viewer is able to take from it what they would like to see.”
Castillo discussed her inspiration for one piece, “Exhale.” After capturing a photo of the sunset during a visit to Belize in 2017, she felt a sense of relief pass over her, explaining that this was a defining moment in her life.
“I stopped to take the photo and that was my moment of finally exhaling––I made it this far, I’ve been on this journey for a while and I can finally call this place my home,” said Castillo, who acquired Belizean citizenship the same year.
Cleveland-born artist Myesha Evon Gardner, discussed the inspirations behind her works in “Center Focus,” “Jaquea Expecting Love” and an untitled piece.
“A lot of the imagery that I captured for this show is written around documentation, solitude and self-reflection as it pertains to Black women,” said Evon Gardner. “The themes within my work are always redefining themes of beauty, vanity and self-love as it pertains to my community.”
Hi-ARTS Executive Director Aaron L. McKinney is a producer of various artistic ventures like “Center Focus” and anticipates the reaction of the exhibit’s audience.
“When the artists started talking about the images that they chose to display, Joyous created these beautiful narratives grouping them together,” said McKinney. “I’m really excited to see how people respond to these groupings and the narratives of these photos.”
“Center Focus” will run until Apr. 29 at El Barrio’s Artspace P.S. 109, the home of Hi-ARTS. The exhibition is open Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 1 to 6 PMp.m. and Thursdays and Fridays from 1 to 8 p.m.