Artists speak directly to Brooklyn in BAM’s ‘Let Freedom Ring’ installation

Laylah Amatullah Barrayn, Lizania Cruz, and Larry Ossei-Mensah.
Photos by Barnabas Crosby, Manolo Salas, and Aarom Ramey

The pandemic has changed things. Preparing the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s annual Martin Luther King Day celebration, which will be held virtually this year on Jan. 18, the organizers wondered how to incorporate an art project into the fabric of an event that nobody can attend in person. Usually, a gallery show of some kind is attached to the historic celebration, which has been held for 34 years and attracts large crowds for its talks and musical performances.

So they came up with a plan. Why not make use of BAM’s famous sign that hangs over the corner of Lafayette Avenue and Flatbush Avenue, a busy intersection for both pedestrians and drivers?

“It’s always been this shiny thing that I’ve wanted to utilize as a platform for conversations through the arts,” said Larry Ossei-Mensah, who curated the project, called “Let Freedom Ring,” which is on view from Jan. 15 through Jan. 21. “I thought it was an appropriate platform not only to celebrate the memory of Dr. King but to invite artists to reflect on what the idea of freedom means.”

Different works addressing the theme will appear on the screen at different times. Ossei-Mensah reached out to a group of artists from Brooklyn with the idea but left it open for interpretation. He says the main focus was to invite artists to have a conversation with the borough.

That conversation will take many forms. The Dominican artist Lizania Cruz, who lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant, went back to “A Freedom Budget for All Americans,” a proposal put together by Dr. King along with A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. “What is most striking is that a lot of the things they were asking for are things you would see today — health care for all, basic income, education for all, clean air and clean water,” Cruz said. “I’m interested in pushing this conversation further. What could be a freedom budget for the government?”

For the photojournalist Laylah Amatullah Barrayn, the idea of freedom sent her to her archives. “What came to mind first was identity,” she said. “Particularly as a woman of African descent, a southern woman living in New York, first-generation — my family has 400 years of rooted foundational ties to the south. So identity is very much important to me.”

She selected three photographs that expanded on the idea, which will be displayed on the BAM sign. One is a self-portrait, which she has never publicly shown due to the majority of her work being in photojournalism. The second photo is of a woman at the March on Washington in August 2020, and the last photograph is a mother and son engaging in the Afro-Brazilian martial art Capoeira, a practice which Amatullah Barrayn documented for five years.

Other artists participating in the project include Derrick Adams, Alvin Armstrong, Kameelah Janan Rasheed, Hank Willis Thomas and Jasmine Wahi.

Ultimately, the hope for the project was to engage a different audience. “Now they’ll pay more attention when they are going down Flatbush,” Ossei-Mensah said. “It’s an invitation to stop and pause, take it in, assess, reflect. Hopefully, it will start a conversation about what freedom means.”

This story first appeared on Brownstoner.com.