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A long-empty storefront in Anacostia is currently filled with wilted leaves, splintered wood, and musty car seats. For a blighted building in a neighborhood with many vacant properties, such a scene might not seem too unusual. But in this particular storefront near the busy intersection of Good Hope Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, the debris flows to the ceiling and presses right against the bay windows, flaunting itself to pedestrians.
To some residents, the junk is an extra eyesore for an already ugly vacant building they want reopened.
To the D.C. government, it’s art.
“They are supposed to be fixing Anacostia and they put this here?” asked Teresa Smart, a passer-by who said her family lives in the neighborhood. “I’m at a loss for words.”
The piece, “The New Migration” by Abigail DeVille, is part of the 5×5 Project—-the expansive citywide public arts project mounted by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. The biennial exhibit includes 25 pieces across all eight wards, and most will remain up through the end of December. “The New Migration” is spread across two vacant buildings and features the debris and heirlooms DeVille collected on a journey from D.C. to Jacksonville. (The second display, two doors up from the first on Good Hope Road, is a window filled with old tires and three skeletons.)
DeVille’s reverse journey echoes the “great migration” of millions of African Americans fleeing the south in the Jim Crow era. Now, DeVille says, another migration is occurring as black Americans are forced to leave their longtime homes in the name of redevelopment and gentrification.
“It’s just something that is happening across the United States,” says DeVille, a black artist based in New York City. “I don’t know what the future holds for Anacostia.”
That message was largely lost on residents as they walked by the storefronts Tuesday afternoon, with more than a dozen people gathering around the piece at one point, according to one observer. There’s just one small sign across the sidewalk from one of the displays explaining the project. And to some, the art is insulting in a poor neighborhood just starting to get some new development, which many residents welcome. On the same block lies the Hive co-working space and the Anacostia Arts Center, two relatively new establishments that are considered big wins for the neighborhood’s troubled retail strip.
The neighborhood email list has been bombarded with nearly 40 emails from residents complaining and asking questions about the project, with some residents saying they’ve called 311 to report dumping on the property. The residents understand it’s art, but say putting this particular project in Anacostia shows a lack of understanding of the community.
Greta Fuller, an advisory neighborhood commissioner for the neighborhood, says the last thing Anacostia needs right now is art that highlights its abandoned buildings. The two storefronts are owned by the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, and Fuller says many people she spoke with have looked at the public art and thought the city simply let the properties languish. (DCHD says it approved the use of its property for 5×5, but had no role in determining what would go in.)
“People don’t understand why that kind of art is out there when we already have so many blighted buildings,” says Fuller. “Everyone is kind of confused. It doesn’t represent any growth or change.”
“Why do they want to make Ward 8 look like a more poor-ass neighborhood?” said another resident, who wouldn’t give her name, after Fuller stopped her while she was walking past the displays.
DeVille says she deliberately chose Anacostia for the display—-and the fact that her work has spurred a conversation about development, albeit not exactly in the intended way, could suggest she chose the right spot. When DeVille was looking for a home for her project, she took a bus tour around the city and immediately thought Anacostia was the right fit. “By the end of the day, it was the place that resonated with me instantly, I felt there was a real community, real people there,” she says. “The other places that were there, it felt like there were fresh coats of paints.”
For 5×5, the D.C. arts commission selects five curators, who each get $100,000 to commission five pieces of art that are related to a proposed theme. San Francisco-based curator Justine Topfer commissioned DeVille’s piece for her project “(home)land,” which hoped to examine the “relationship between self and place in a world of transitory identities and contested geographies.”
DeVille’s public art was accompanied by a procession last Saturday, for which she made costumes, in which dozens of people marched from Frederick Douglass‘ house, past the displays, and to the Anacostia Art Center. DeVille didn’t speak at the event, but Topfer says that if many of the residents who don’t like the piece had come, they would better understand the intent behind the project. DeVille’s piece, she says, is an abstract take on the painter Jacob Lawence‘s “The Migration Series,” which is on display at the Phillips Collection and depicts scenes of the great migration.
“I think they missed the energy and performance and they are having a knee-jerk reaction to the storefront,” Topfer says. “It’s a shame that it was missed.”
This isn’t the only 5×5 project to arouse controversy this year. Over the summer, the arts commission scrapped artist Mia Feuer‘s plan to install a sculpture of a gas-station in the Anacostia River after activists argued that it would be detrimental to their work improving the image of the river.
So far, the negative reaction to DeVille’s piece hasn’t reached the same pitch as the outrage that squashed Feuer’s project. And DeVille and Topfer say they’ve only received positive feedback on the art. Still, Fuller presses her point: Why does Anacostia have to be the neighborhood that hosts art that, at least outwardly, just looks like junkyard rummage?
On Tuesday, as word of DeVille’s piece started to spread, activist Ron Moten and former Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen stopped by to check out the work. (Allen, who now works at DCHD, wouldn’t comment on the pieces.)
“It doesn’t bring any justification of what’s being done,” says Moten. “It looks like we are going backward.”
Top photos by Perry Stein
Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this post misidentified the cross-street of the installation’s location as Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard SE. The actual name of the street is Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE.