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At first, entering the gallery space of “How We Lost DC” feels like stumbling upon a kind of accidental time capsule offering a glimpse of present-day D.C. There’s a neon sign advertising that ubiquitous amalgam of Chinese food, subs, and chicken. A set of wall labels is peppered with crowdsourced commentary on life in the city, and a mountain of receipts litters the floor.
But this isn’t a time capsule; the floor isn’t littered by neglect. The objects are works by members of the local artist collective Delusions of Grandeur, and while the works certainly offer a message for posterity, their central concern is one of the present: the black experience in a city transformed.
It’s fitting that “How We Lost DC” is being shown at Honfleur Gallery in Anacostia, as it’s both a space for discourse and a lightning rod when it comes to gentrification. That dichotomy is at the heart of “How We Lost DC,” where “We” reads as a reference both to the city’s shrinking African-American population and to a more personal sense of loss shared by members of the collective.
Indeed, some artists use the theme to turn inward as in Shaunté Gates’ “The Dope Effect Series”—a dystopian and symbol-laden triptych in acrylic and collage, which mines the artist’s childhood in D.C. public housing. In one panel, an adolescent boy teeters on the edge of a wall of cement blocks, his gaze cast down and arms outstretched for balance. The wall forms part of a vast labyrinth, which is identifiable only by the threatening obelisks that sporadically erupt from it—clear allusions to the District’s most recognizable monument.
Other artists zoom out to consider broader implications of displacement and alienation. In two rich and balanced compositions, Jamea Richmond-Edwards employs ink, feathers, and colorful patterned paper to depict monumental female figures. The allegorical women hover within expressionistic night skies and cast knowing gazes at the viewer, representing both trauma induced by and strength derived from being spiritually adrift—a status the artist ascribes to African-American identity.
Delusions of Grandeur—a group founded in 2011 by Gates, Richmond-Edwards, and Amber Robles-Gordon—has since grown to include six artists who work in diverse styles and mediums. Its name refers to the “delusion” its founders say is necessary to embark on a career as an artist, particularly as an artist of color. Within the context of “How We Lost DC,” it’s impossible not to also associate that delusion with the promise of American cities. It’s a promise that, for many living in them, goes unfulfilled.
Such aspirations are at the center of Larry Cook’s affecting installation “Black Economics,” which delivers the strongest conceptual punch of the exhibition. Hundreds of failed scratch-offs, lotto tickets, and receipts rest in piles on the floor and on a counter. A broom leans against the wall, as if recently abandoned by a custodian. The scene lends physical weight to the lived experience of poverty and the systems that perpetuate it.
Wesley Clark also locates his visual vocabulary in the mundane. In his sculptures, sports and games become metaphors for the antagonistic relationship between gentrifier and gentrified. For one set of works, Clark paints maps of D.C. onto pieces of wood, coats them in resin, and overlays the pieces with football playbook notations. The shorthand, comprised of circles, rectangles, Xs, and arrows, ostensibly depicts patterns of migration within the city (most arrows point west to east).
Ultimately, “How We Lost DC” reads more hypothetical than elegiac. The exhibition leaves room for action by challenging the conscientiousness of new arrivals (“What’s your neighbor’s name?” asks one of artist Stan Squirewell’s commentary labels) and by invoking the strength of the African-American community in the face of trauma.
At a moment when the shape of our cities and many Americans’ civil rights feels particularly unstable, the artists of Delusions of Grandeur seem to suggest that the rules of the game can still be rewritten.
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