Brooklyn is a huge and varied borough – extremely wealthy in parts, poor in others. There are Arabic enclaves (along Atlantic Avenue) and Jewish strongholds ( still around Williamsburg and Crown Heights) but the heart of Brooklyn is BedStuy – the largest urban black community in the United States, and the Brooklyn that I saw was mostly black.
With its Caribbean, Haitian and Afro-American communities, the city is an important centre for black culture. This permeates the city from hip hop on the streets (Jay-Z, Lil’ Kim and the Notorious BIG all hailed from Brooklyn) to Jamaican curried goat places and Haitian basement temples in Flatbush, lesbian lounges in Park Slope ( the upscale area said to have the highest concentration of black gay households in the world) and the city’s rarified halls of high culture.
The city contains at least three important art collections related to the black community: the Brooklyn Museum, home to the first collection of African art in the United States, the Museum for Contemporary African Diaspora Art and the Simmons Collection.
The Brooklyn Museum, a top-flight establishment comparable to the best in Manhattan, is also known for its Egyptian collection of mummies and sculptures. It played a key part in the ongoing debate about the relationship between ancient Egypt and black Africa, when during an exhibition in the 1970s a visitor wrote a comment in the visitors book remarking (and this is paraphrased):
“I enjoyed the exhibition immensely but I was disappointed by the captions provided. Works were described as ‘grotesque’ when in fact they just displayed features that was black – thick lips, tightly curled hair and broad noses”.
This comment sparked a new debate about how much Egypt owed to African civilization, and exactly what colour the ancient Egyptians were.
The African collection includes an important selection of Benin Bronzes, the brass carvings sacked from the city of Benin (now in Nigeria) in the late 19th century as well as the earlier Nok culture sculptures in terracotta, and West African masks and textiles leading up to contemporary artists like Yinka Shonibare who is represented with this “skipping girl”, and a carnival mask of Elvis Presely.
When I went, there was also an interesting temporary exhibit from Ghanaian art El Anatsui, who creates heavy, rich hangings out of pieces of discarded metal.
The Museum of Contemporary African Diaspora Arts is much smaller – comprising a single room which was showing abstract paintings (not really my taste), although they had some nice kente-inspired baseball caps in the gift store that I have seen lots of people wearing.
The Museum is located in Fort Greene, one of Brooklyn’s prettiest neighborhoods and historically a black one. The area has leafy streets of brownstones buildings, a picturesque park (which in Summer sometimes hosts the Soul Summit house music parties) and chic restaurants like Madiba, an immaculately decorated shrine to Nelson Mandela where we ate South African-inspired food and admired the good looking multiracial crowd.
Last stop was Peaches in BedStuy – a sign of how quickly the formerly-rundown ghetto area is gentrifying. Its a dressed-up soul food brunch spot for a mainly black, Louis Vuitton-toting, after-church crowd who come to eat and be seen. The restaurant has become so successful it is now spawning spin-offs, a bar next door and a slightly more midmarket Fort Greene sibling.