Illustration by Vidhya Nagarajan
The six institutions that have partnered with Barnard to create site-specific learning experiences for students are some of Harlem’s most revered arts and cultural organizations.
Romare Bearden Foundation
Artist Romare Bearden was born in North Carolina in 1911, but as a young boy he moved to Harlem, which became the subject of much of his most riveting work. Its streets captivated him, and his brightly colored collages vividly capture the buzz and chaos of city life. The class “Romare Bearden: Home is Harlem” was taught in partnership with the Studio Museum in Harlem—which Bearden played a role in helping to establish—and the Romare Bearden Foundation. The course emphasized Bearden’s artwork, his published articles and interviews, and the work of those that influenced him. Diedra Harris-Kelley, who is co-director of the foundation, taught the class, bringing students rare catalogs, books, and videos from the foundation, whose archives are currently not open to the public. The class explored “how Harlem shaped the artist’s thinking,” she says.
National Black Theatre
National Black Theatre, one of the oldest black theatres in the country, hosted two courses. A class on art, activism, and social justice during the Harlem Renaissance, taught by English professor Monica Miller, examined formal and informal theatre—from a 1917 “Silent Protest” parade along Fifth Avenue organized by W.E.B. Du Bois to the National Black Theatre’s production of Blood at the Root . In the second class, architecture students created proposals for a mixed-use facility for the theatre, which is considering a renovation and expansion, says adjunct assistant professor Irina Verona. The project prompted Joud Al Shdaifat ’17 to explore ways of “linking social, political, historical, and religious aspects of Harlem with the architectural concept of the design.”
The Apollo Theater is one of Harlem’s most recognizable cultural institutions, with more than a million visitors a year. Its iconic neon sign towers over 125th Street; its marquee advertises some of the biggest names in entertainment as well as its famous amateur night, introduced in 1934. In 2017, Barnard will offer a class in partnership with the Apollo called “Black Women, Performance, and the Politics of Style” that will focus on some of the well-known—as well as some lesser known—women who have appeared at the Apollo and whose careers have contributed to the wider discourse on entertainment, the performing arts, and iconography. Students will also examine the history of the Apollo and the ways that it intersects “socially, politically, and economically with Harlem and black culture,” says Shirley Taylor, the theatre’s director of education.
Students pored over personal diaries, typescript manuscripts, and photo albums from the poet, playwright, novelist, and black feminist Ntozake Shange ’70 as part of a course on digital storytelling. Given in partnership with the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the International Center of Photography, the class explored Shange’s life and career, and made extensive use of the 31-linear-foot collection of materials from Shange, which was recently acquired by the Barnard Library Archives and Special Collections. Students used the material “in some of the most thoughtful and creative ways I have ever seen an archive be used,” says Shannon O’Neill, Barnard’s associate director of archives and special collections. The class was taught by Kim F. Hall, the Lucyle Hook Chair and professor of English and Africana studies. Below Shange discusses her collection:
Born in Harlem in 1924, author James Baldwin was one of the country’s leading chroniclers of the experience of black Americans. Nineteen students spent the spring semester exploring how Baldwin’s work examined “the changing geography of Harlem around race, sexuality, gender, religion, and American power,” says Rich Blint, the associate director of the Office of Public Programs and Engagement at Columbia’s School of the Arts and an adjunct assistant professor at Barnard. In the course, taught in conjunction with Harlem Stage, the students participated in a master class led by Meshell Ndegeocello, whose work in progress, Can I Get a Witness: The Gospel of James Baldwin , is scheduled to premiere at Harlem Stage in the fall. The master class demonstrated “how widely relevant Baldwin’s work is,” says Tamsin Pargiter ’16. Baldwin has become one of her favorite authors.
In 2001, an exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem called “Freestyle” helped usher into the limelight a new generation of artists whose approaches to art making “challenged the art world and questioned conventional thinking about art made by artists of color,” says Leslie Hewitt, an assistant professor of professional practice in the visual arts concentration. Students in her class, “Freestyle and Displacement in Contemporary Art Practices,” explored their own subjectivities in ways that intersected with the concepts examined by the artists in the “Freestyle” exhibition, along with their contemporaries. The students met with some of the museum’s former artists-in-residence, art historians, and curators. The museum, founded in 1968, was created by a diverse group of artists, community activists, and philanthropists to support practicing artists and provide arts education.
Photographs by Will Mebane