How do you sum up the pervasive, seemingly inescapable system of gentrification by means of abstract visualization? Can any work elicit the violence of gentrification—the lasting impact that loss of community has on already marginalized communities?
With the “Occupational Hazards” show at New Door Creative, artist Aziza Claudia Gibson-Hunter has created a collection comprised of mixed media assemblages that incorporate literal gentrification ephemera: images of cranes and scaffolding, Tyvek advertisements, orange temporary fencing, and newspaper clippings discussing the matter. This work functions as a living archive, or a timeline that traces materials gathered over the years from gentrifying sites in and around the artist’s northwest Washington D.C. neighborhood.
Originally from Philadelphia, Gibson-Hunter landed in Washington, D.C. in the late '70s to pursue a graduate degree in printmaking at Howard University. She remembers witnessing the crack epidemic of the '80s infiltrate communities in Harlem, N.Y. and D.C. “A generation was lost,” she says at the Station North gallery. “You could depend on your community and support black businesses on Georgia Avenue. All of that is gone now.”
The “Occupational Hazards” series tries to make sense of shifts Gibson-Hunter observed in those neighborhoods, and reflects a dense history marked by the material remnants of gentrification.
Her work offers a personal reflection on gentrification from the perspective of someone affected by it. “I tend to find a subject matter that moves me and then I will find materials that support the concept, materials that will help express the work,” Gibson-Hunter says. “A lot of the work is about agency, the will to be without other people infringing on that.”
One of the more evocative assemblages in the series, “We Knew the Plan Was Real,” reads like a fever dream, a prophetic warning of the coming changes. The piece reimagines a construction site with a brightly textured skyline, and scaffolding supported by a plastic bag gridding. Red lines strike through bluish yellow horizons—a visual stand-in for redlining and its resounding effects on communities in Washington D.C. and Baltimore. Gibson-Hunter says she was trying to understand gentrification systematically.
“You see those little bags,” she says, pointing at the collage. “I’d see them on the street. They were used for the distribution of crack. For me that’s where gentrification begins. It begins with someone deciding that they want to occupy a space and then the guns and drugs are dropped into the space to begin the clearing of the land. And it’s years before you see white faces.”
The found objects used for the collages, though sourced from construction sites, maintain a squeaky cleanness, a new-new sheen that is both enticing and reflective of a psychological trapping used to usher in the acceptance of revitalization efforts.
“The neighbors begin to think, maybe the newness will be for the better,” Gibson-Hunter adds.
A primary strength of the series is that it frames gentrification as an industry. The literal materials used in revitalization efforts are used to critique gentrification, often in subtle ways. In “Of Vultures and Blackbirds,” four target-branded bird silhouettes sit atop a black swoosh that cuts across concrete gray color blocks. “No Trespassing” signs jut out from the surface. A red line echoes the red text of the sign. The work is a warning and a proclamation; the viewer can imagine who is being targeted, and who is being kept out of newly acquired territories. But the work never explicitly defines a specific villain or victim. Rather, by broadly focusing the signifiers of gentrification as subjective markers, viewers are able to situate themselves, and their own lived experiences into personal readings of the collection. It’s a potent rumination on the quiet brutality of gentrification.
Gibson-Hunter expounds on her interpretation of “occupation,” as it’s used in the title of the series, “in terms of occupying space as well as occupation, as a field of work.” Some of the works use playing cards as place holders for the powerful, whose buying power allows them access and ownership of properties.
“The thing is that it’s an assault on your sense of memory and space,” Gibson-Hunter continues. “These were neighborhoods where people worked and played and loved and now it’s almost if it wasn’t that. Many people lost their homes. It was criminal.” The sense of loss the artist describes from the forced displacement she observed in her community is a recurring theme throughout the collection.
This show is the culmination of a decades-long survey by Gibson-Hunter of the construction sites and articles of gentrification in Washington, D.C. The neighborhoods within the Station North Arts and Entertainment District—where the New Door Creative gallery is located—are undergoing similar revitalization projects. This series of work reminds us that transparent communication and inclusion in the planning of these communities is vital to preserve communities and ensure that those most in need are the primary benefactors of needed resources.
“This body of work is me expressing being a person that has watched this and is trying to understand the system of it,” Gibson-Hunter continues. “It was like the Washington Post and a few other newspapers were kind of making fun of blacks who believed that gentrification was part of a larger plan, but we all knew that the plan was real, and we’re living it out now. It all came to fruition.”
“Occupational Hazards” is on view at New Door Creative through October 15. There will be a gallery talk Sunday, Oct. 2, from 3-6 p.m. For more information, visit newdoorcreative.com.