The heaviest of the rain was over by the time the soggy parade turned the corner from 14th Street SE onto Good Hope Road. As the dancers, musicians and onlookers moved from the Frederick Douglass House to the Anacostia Arts Center, one voice began to chant, “It don’t mean a thing/If it ain’t that go-go swing.”
The apparently impromptu tribute to Chuck Brown, which mingled with jazz, spirituals and African drumming, added a D.C. flavor to the “sunset procession” devised by artist Abigail DeVille and director Charlotte Brathwaite, both New Yorkers. The performance-art march marked the debut of “New Migration,” a series of storefront installations that combines found objects from a journey DeVille took from D.C. to Florida, inspired in part by Jacob Lawrence’s 1940s “The Migration” paintings.
The rainswept Sept. 6 parade was one of several opening-day events for 5x5, the city-sponsored public-art festival. The event, funded by $500,000 from the D.C. Commission on Arts and Humanities, enlisted five curators to direct five artists or artistic teams of their choosing. Some of the resulting pieces will be on display through Oct. 6; the longest-lasting will remain until Dec. 30.
Earlier in the day, curator Lance Fung introduced the participants he picked to create “Nonuments” — non-heroic monuments — for a grassy site a block from the Waterfront Metro station. “People are talking, because they don’t know what the heck this is,” said the curator of what he called a “temporary art park.”
Fung, like all five curators and most of the artists, is from out of town. California and New York, unsurprisingly, are well represented. One curator, Stephanie Sherman, has spent some time here and identifies herself as being based in San Diego, D.C., London and “elsewhere.”
After Lance Fung introduced the various artists and their projects, prizes were awarded to students who had designed their own nonuments. Three kindergarten girls won for tributes to, respectively, mom, naps and kitty cats.
A nearby church hosted a screening of Jonathan Fung’s “Hark,” a film about human trafficking. That was also the theme of the California artist’s installation, “Peep,” which featured a large shipping container. Fung called the metal box, partially spray-painted pink, “a metaphor for commodification.”
Viewers who peered into the darkened container’s pink side saw dangling strings of alphabet blocks and pictures of kids. The portholes on the unpainted side revealed sewing machines that represented sweatshops where children toil.
What Fung wants viewers to understand about the exploitation of children is that it’s global. “It’s happening here. In this neighborhood,” he said.
A few strides from “Peep,” Jennifer Wen Ma had made a portrait of Alpha Lillstrom, a neighborhood resident chosen by lottery. Designed to be seen most clearly from above, “Portrait Garden” was painted with black Chinese ink on a selection of native wild plants.
The ink, Ma noted, was charcoal-based, making it a plant product as well. But that doesn’t mean the ink is good for the leaves. “It forces them to grow new greens really fast,” she said. Thus the work is a metaphor for the stresses of daily life, added the artist, who divides her time between New York and Beijing.
Also on the Southwest site was another “Migration,” a set of huge. spindly-legged bird’s nests devised by Cameron Hockenson. The nonument plays on both Washington’s position on the Atlantic flyway, an avian migration route, and the city’s ongoing gentrification.
The sculpture memorializes “a home threatened, yet resilient, in the face of displacement and climate change,” said the artist, a Californian who currently lives in Greece. The nest sculpture was designed to accommodate swallows, he explained, so after Oct. 6, “I’d really like it to be moved to a reserve. Not to a gallery or a museum.”
Referring to the human aspect of the piece, Hockenson said it offered a vision of “a city that’s not market-driven, but driven by the needs of people.” He acknowledged that he was aware that the plot where the sculpture stands is slated for redevelopment, as is the library across the street.
Indeed, a tour of 5x5 is also an introduction to the D.C. government’s development agenda. The art sites stretch from the Southwest Waterfront to Southeast’s Capitol Riverfront, Uniontown and St. Elizabeth’s campus and on to Northeast’s NoMa, H Street, Brookland and Fort Totten. There’s almost nothing on display in neighborhoods that are largely built-out.
At a former library, the abandoned R.L. Christian kiosk at 13th and H Streets NE, Iranian-Californian artist Sanaz Mazinani has created what from a distance looks a bit like a mosque. But what appear to be abstract decorative patterns turn out to kaleidoscopic images that conflate D.C. and Iran. One panel, for example, pairs distorted maps of the Washington and Tehran Metros.
In Capitol Riverfront’s Canal Park, near the Commission on Arts and Humanities office, Kota Ezawa has erected a painted wooden tableau of people who’ve raised their hands to vote. The sign that explains the piece says that it “can be viewed as a tongue-in-cheek reference to the District’s lack of voting representation.” Ezawa lives in San Francisco.
“Ceremonies in Dark Men,” a series of five massive banners that pair a photograph and a poem, has an unusually high proportion of D.C. participants: 50 percent. Organized by A.M. Weaver, a curator based in New Jersey, the series depicts “black men in strident contrast to the stereotypical black male image.”
One of the banners features local photographer Larry Cook’s image of his dreadlocked self in a graduation robe, a photo included in the artist’s show at Hamiltonian Gallery early this year. It now hangs a half a block away on the wall of the Reeves Center, a D.C. government office building the city hopes to have torn down as part of a deal to build a new soccer stadium. That sports venue would rise a short walk away from where Cameron Hockenson’s anti-gentrification nonument will stand for another three weeks.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.