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Sasha Phyars-Burgess & Nadia Mohamed

November 6, 2014

Create Change Fellows Sasha and Nadia conversed over email to discuss their artistic practices in the context of displacement and community development.

 

SASHA PHYARS-BURGESS

 

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Describe your artistic practice and what social or political issues your work tends to focus on.

I work primarily as a photographer. The photography is really just a conduit (excuse) for me to poke around in people’s lives, spend time with them, and photograph. My work tends to focus on community, representation, and the power of the image. Socially and politically, my work focuses on what happens when groups of people enter or exit a space that is foreign or unknown to them, and what happens to that space once they enter or exit.

 

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What are the positive ways in which your city is growing to accommodate all people? How do you believe your art/practice may play a role in that?

In the past few years I’ve noticed the direction of the Lehigh Valley’s economic development changing. The integral economic shift is from industry to commerce. Since the Sands Casino was built in Bethlehem, there has been a big push to make the area a trendy, business-savvy, and exciting three-city metropolis (Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton). In Allentown, the revitalization of the city center and the development of the Neighborhood Income Zone has had the very clear goal of revitalizing and beautifying the city center. Though this has yet to begin, the effects of these plans push many of the lower income and poverty level residents out of the area. The area has made very little effort to integrate citizens of all socioeconomic backgrounds into the discussion of these advancements. For now, these advancements are providing jobs, and at least a (reported) glimmer of hope for people living in these economically depressed areas. I am interested in the effects of participatory documentation, or what happens when everyone gets to tell their own stories, contribute their own words, pictures, video, etc. I am also interested in making images and then decidedly showing those images in the places they were made. I believe that my artwork, or artistic practice will play a role by providing a forum for conversation and connection.

 

Describe a project you are working on would like to work on that relates to your neighborhood, city or town.

I’m working on a couple projects. However, the main project is specifically on the city of Allentown. I have been collecting stories, photographs, and videos from various organizations and individuals. My intention is to collect all of these things onto a website that other people can contribute to in ways they see fit. I am also working on another photographic essay on Blight in Allentown, which will be a collection of recordings and writings by individuals affected by blight.

 

Pick a place/space/building that is currently vacant in your neighborhood. Describe it as it is currently, and what you would like to see it become if all the resources you needed to make it happen were available.

There is an abandoned movie theater down the street from my house (2 actually in opposite directions) and if i had the resources I would immediately turn them into movie theaters again that would show not only blockbuster movies but also independent films, as well as films by local filmmakers. As well, this space would double as a media learning space, that would offer affordable/free workshop sessions and classes, as well as a darkroom, and digital lab space for photographers and filmmakers. Also it would be the ultimate dream if they served West Indian food in this spot as well.

 

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NADIA MOHAMED

 

Describe your artistic practice and what social or political issues your work tends to focus on.

I am a collaborative media maker. I’ve made a few documentaries as a Paper Tiger TV collective member. I’ve also curated & organized public events that range from large scale conferences, to screenings, to performance & participatory art making in unexpected places. Much of my work to date deals with race, land use & cities, migration, power and resilience.

 

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What are the positive ways in which your city is growing to accommodate all people? How do your believe your art/practice may play a role in that?

I was born in and currently live in Jersey City, NJ a place that is experiencing lots of change. This particular cycle is marked by gentrification, with a few decades of divestment changing rather rapidly to new development & infrastructure that seems largely out of context to the long term residents who have been here for years, if not generations—those who stayed or came during those decades of divestment.

 

We are a relatively early stage of gentrification, at least in my neighborhood, and I’m hopeful that with and through cultural organizing—what we learned and began to practice through our fellowship at The Laundromat Project—we, neighbors, can turn the tide to make sure the infrastructure that comes in is actually relevant and resonant with the long term communities already here and interrupt cycle of recreating places for the whiter and more affluent among us.

 

My practice sheds light on the current policies and media campaigns that cause gentrification and amplifies the voices of long term residents, recognizes our varied histories, foregrounds our visions for our neighborhood and amplifies our power. I’m of the school of thought that the stories we tell about the issues and changes we see frame the kinds of responses we can have about a social issue. I try to tell stories that balance sharing the human impact with their larger more institutional and structural systemic root causes, and ideally illuminate pathways for actions that can interrupt those systemic causes and build more just institutions and systems in the longer process.

 

Describe a project you are working on or would like to work on that relates to your neighborhood, city or town.

I’m working on a long term project called Our Place, that is precisely about community led development we are talking about. Its a project that is still taking shape in many ways. It’s called Our Place in part, because Our Place was the name of the family diner/restaurant in Jersey City, that I grew up in, the small family business my recently arrived immigrant parents started after years of being underpaid, precarious staff in the food service industry of NYC. I’m in the early stages of creating a public art installation that can collect and share long term residents’ visions for the future of Jersey City, particularly in my neighborhood, the Heights, and eventually will co-host public events that, ideally can funnel some creative energy toward the creation of some more just alternatives to the current land speculation system we have.

 

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Pick a place/space/building that is currently vacant in your neighborhood. Describe it as it is currently, and what you would like to see it become if all the resources you needed to make it happen were available.

There are so many vacant buildings, some of which are former factories, and others that are designed for multi-family housing, in Jersey City so it’s hard to pick just one. I can envision many different scenarios and would first design a community engagement process to assess already existing assets and currently unmet or under-met needs. For the purposes of this question, though, I would love for their to be a community land trust in Jersey City, with permanently affordable housing specifically for people of color and immigrants. Many of the buildings that are currently being demolished are former single room occupancy (SRO) buildings that recently arrived immigrants were able to rent on the cheap as they got their footing here. That’s definitely an aspect of my family’s story. Within this land trust, I would envision a cooperatively owned and managed storefront that would incorporate the making & sharing of food, a community art-making hub, and an easily accessible entry point for community organizing. I’m incredibly inspired by the work of The Brotherhood / SisterSol in Harlem, who were one of the partners of the Harlem Fellows Team. As such, having a program that was in some ways modeled after their leadership development and political education program for young people of color is an interest of mine as well. The ideas and inspiration can definitely keep flowing, but I’ll stop there.

 

ABOUT THE ARTISTS

Phyars_Burgess_SashaSasha is a media and visual artist based in Lehigh Valley, PA. She graduated from Bard College in 2010 with a BA in Photography. Her work has been shown in international exhibitions from New York to Berlin. Read The LP interview with Sasha here, and visit her on the web at sashaphyars-burgess.com.

 

Mohamed_NadiaNadia is a media artist based in Jersey City, NJ. She has worked in the media arts and social change sector since 2009 as a Paper Tiger TV collective member and a lead organizer at the Facing Race National Conference. Read The LP interview with Nadia here.