Contributed by Marcus Dargan
I was a very sensitive child who cried about almost everything. At some point in my early teens, I decided to put an end to crying. I viewed it as a sign of weakness and it also didn’t seem to effect change or make things better for me. So, I made a practical, conscious decision to put crying to rest and was very successful at it. Barely anyone has seen me actually cry in public except for at funerals and worship services at church. I had become proud in my reputation as someone who doesn’t shed tears easily.
At the top of the year, I made a resolution to conjure up my former self. There was a desire to evoke my inner child who was not so afraid to laugh too loud, smile with missing teeth and even cry when hurt or full of joy. Nowadays, I get at least two or three good cries out a week. It is therapeutic, cleansing the palette of the soul. It allows me to acknowledge and accept whatever feelings are going on inside, and then to reset my mind and body. I am now determined to let it out whenever I feel the urge, but I do have one stipulation: no one is going to catch me crying on film.
I was recently introduced to Hollis King through Nioka Workman, a cellist, composer and producer I have collaborated with frequently within the last few years. Hollis is a former creative director at Verve Music Group who has since moved forward to fully embrace his calling as a visual artist. His latest project, Images of Dignity: Decent People’s Children, captures the stories, faces and lives of Harlem’s past and present.
Images of Dignity was inspired to capture the essence of Harlem as we know it, before the landscape and people become completely alien to its long term residents. It is a diary that celebrates the proud voices of born and raised Harlemites, as well as introduces its newer inhabitants, right on the cusp of gentrification.
This decade has shown a trend of Harlem artists exploring themes of gentrification: the sense of lose, frustration, wonder, entitlement and obliviousness. Jaylene Clark Owens’ popular spoken word piece Renaissance in the Belly of A Killer Whale is a prime example. In 2008, the visual arts exhibit EVOLUTION: The Changing Face of Harlem featured works by 25 artHarlem artists, examining multiple perspectives on gentrification. My own play, Dream Deferred, retold personal experiences and conversations on Harlem’s transformation shared within my circle of family and friends. Like his fellow artists, Hollis wants to capture and document how the rapid changes have affected the community.
Hollis notes, “When you do socially engaged art, it takes time to do it right.” Every Friday afternoon for over the last couple of years, he welcomes another Harlemite to his home, a brownstone on the Upper West Side. He has interviewed a little over 400 residents. Some are high-profile personalities and others are just regular folk. A lot of them are local creatives and artists.
The foyer leads to a green room of sorts and the south parlor is converted into a studio where he conducts interviews for Images of Dignity. The atmosphere is bustling with energy. Throughout the afternoon, Hollis receives a number of visitors through his open hardwood doors: friends dropping by just to say “Hi,” fellow artists checking in, a musician warming up on her instrument before her interview and the occasional curious passerby wondering what is going on inside. It is a welcoming environment with a table of collard greens and macaroni and cheese to make you feel at home.
I imagine this is what the renaissance period of Harlem must have been like. A late Friday afternoon at somebody’s home with Aaron Douglas painting in the back room while Countee Cullen and Alain Locke politic in the front. Langston Hughes sits in a corner or maybe looks out the window into the street, documenting his observations on a scrap of paper. Zora Neale Hurston bursts in the room, just coming from some soul sucking domestic work, inspired by a new project she’s dying to run past Langston, while Willie “The Lion” Smith tinkers on an out of tune upright against the wall. This is all an informal be-in, in my imagination, with W. E. B. Du Bois frying fish in the kitchen.
Speaking to Hollis was more of a conversation and less of an interview. We candidly talked on artistry, relationships, spirituality and a few of my philosophies I’ve pieced together over the years. At one moment, I shared a personal experience where I learned the power of greeting others with hugs, something I never used to do. He kept digging. I think he wanted to make me cry. I continued to answer his questions, but put up a great internal wall as I was determined not to be caught crying on film. I know my eyes got a little watery. Not too sure if a tear escaped and rolled down my cheek.
By the time we were done, I felt as if I had a chat with an old friend I haven’t seen in many moons. After the interview, we moved into the photography session. He specifically told me to smile, something I rarely do in photos unless I am required to. He said he wanted to capture the “joy and warmth” inside of me. I took on his challenge and mustered up the best smile I could, calling forth my inner child to break through the tough façade I have mastered over the years.
At the end, we hugged and I promised to bring him a gift of my rustic balsamic potato salad which I’ve been working on, perfecting throughout the year. Hollis welcomed me to drop in on any Friday afternoon to just say “Hi,” or to simply hang out and be part of the be-in atmosphere at his home in Harlem.
Read the recent Amsterdam News profile on Hollis King.