Image courtesy of Pittsburgh Cultural Trust
The COVID-19 pandemic has cancelled live theater, meaning the advertisements that usually decorate the Cultural District are gone. Rather than leave the neighborhood empty, Tereneh Idia has worked with the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust to transform the space into a group installation.
“They [the Cultural Trust] weren’t sure about all of the spaces that were available,” Idia, the installation’s curator, said. “Because of COVID, there are empty windows and poster signs that are filled with Broadway shows that couldn’t come last year.”
“202021: a new constellation,” features work from 11 Black, Pittsburgh-based artists positioned at nine different locations throughout the Cultural District. The installation will remain on display through March, and visitors can access a map of the locations on the Cultural Trust’s website.
According to Idia, the idea of a constellation reflects how visitors move between individual artworks. She said she hopes visitors move through the space in their own way, with each individual forming a new constellation.
“For me, there are these art pieces that are in static places, and within that space hopefully is a place of celebration of Black Pittsburgh, of Blackness and of the beauty of Black people and what we create,” Idia said.
The works on display span a variety of media, from video to screenprinting to vintage clothing. Shori Sims’ graphite drawings at 813 Liberty Ave. honor Black hair through surreal portraits, while Patrice Jones’ thrifted pieces pay homage to the late August Wilson, a celebrated Pittsburgh-based playwright whose works encompass Black experience in the 20th century.
Njaimeh Njie’s video installation, “Tour Guides,” explores the importance of space and place to Pittsburghers. The mini-documentary follows several millennial women — mostly Njie’s friends or acquaintances — as they show the viewer places in the City that hold special importance to them.
“I spoke to people who I’m interested in, people who I think have something to say. I just asked them, ‘Is there a specific neighborhood, or is there a specific place in the City that holds some meaning for you?’” Njie said. “And then we shot the interview at that location.”
Njie said in focusing the documentary around millennial women, many of whom are women of color, she wanted to challenge viewers’ ideas of Pittsburgh’s past and future.
“It’s about placing these women within the physical landscape of the City, because so often, the narrative that’s perpetuated about Pittsburgh is white working-class folks, or this kind of tech — or eds and meds [education and medicine] — vision of the future,” Njie said. “I just wanted to bring it back to the everyday people who call this place home.”
Njie, whose work largely centers on Black experiences in Pittsburgh, originally produced “Tour Guides” in 2018. She said although the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 brought increased attention to those experiences, she sees a need to continue telling Black stories.
“These stories have been relevant for some time, and it’s good in a lot of ways that the larger cultural conversation has caught up. But I just hope that myself and others are able to keep doing this work, because I think it matters for posterity. It matters now and for the future.”
While Njie’s work emphasizes space, Steven Montinar, a senior at Carnegie Mellon University, contributed to “a new constellation” with a piece that explores our relationship to time.
“Flava Flav’s Digital Clock,” on display at 707 Penn Ave., uses 142 rap lyrics to display five units of time — day of the week, month, date, hour and minute. Each time unit appears in all caps somewhere in a rap lyric, creating a five-line poem.
“I’ve focused on identity and language and gesture and all those things that happen in between,” Montinar said. “The clock specifically was to transform time into poetry, and create these found poem Black experiences, with each rendition of the time changing the piece.”
The clock uses songs from a variety of artists, including Cardi B, Mac Miller and Wu Tang Clan. Montinar said he wants his work to showcase many voices — rather than a single, often authoritative voice — and has found that hip-hop lends itself to multiplicity.
“I like taking multiple voices and creating like a unifying theme or unifying voice, because I think a lot of work that deals with activism, people tend to speak for the group,” he said. “This is why hip-hop plays so well into it, because there’s so many voices in hip-hop. I like sampling and remixing voices and remixing the world around me to create a new theme and a new message.”
The clock changes constantly, but the same lyrics pop up repeatedly. Every Saturday, for example, the top line reads, “oh its a SATURDAY night, i guess that makes it alright.” According to Montinar, the clock plays with the way in which we remember time, with time acting as a “forgotten marker.”
“When President Trump — or former President Trump — got elected, I remember that time, because it was such a pivotal time to me,” Montinar said. “5:19 is such a strange time to remember … Then a year later, two years, three years, four years later, I recognize the time, but it doesn’t really hold that same weight, as it did at that certain point.”
Idia said some pieces in “a new constellation” may remain on display beyond March, but she plans for the installation to be temporary, in order to hopefully make way for new public art.
“I would love to see that space being as dynamic as possible,” Idia said. “As much as I would love to see things stay forever and ever, I think it’s a really great opportunity for more artists to show.”