“A Jamaica, Queens Thing: Rap and the Crack Era in South Jamaica, Queens” is a haunting look at the crack epidemic in South Jamaica and how it intersected with rap and hip-hop.
The multimedia show is somewhat daring for a neighborhood still trying to recover from a time that destroyed so many lives and damaged the area’s reputation.But Herb Tam, who curated the show, now at the Jamaica Center for Arts & Learning, said the reactions to the exhibit have been mostly positive.
“Most of the negative responses happened before the show went up,” he said. “When you say ‘Crack, rap, South Jamaica,’ that really strikes a bad nerve with people.It’s a very fresh memory for a lot of people here.But when the show went up and people came through here, they really responded well to what they saw.”
The space is a sensory-rich banquet, filled with music, light, video and large sculptures. Two large cars dominate the first room.The first, by artist Joshua Abram Howard, is a cardboard shell of an SUV, propped up by shiny new tire rims.
Through the SUV’s shell, another car, made by Corey D’Augustine, is visible: this one cut in half and turned over on its side, flickering in time with the low thumping sound of subwoofers.
The two cars loom huge in JCAL’s small exhibit space, and visually split open the materialistic glitter of the crack era to expose its emptiness.
Behind the cars, video images of street life and children playing with water guns flicker against the walls.Under the growl of the subwoofers is a woman’s voice playing from speakers in the next room, singing a mournful low dirge.
Tam says he wanted the show to create a continuum between the exhibit and the street. “It’s what you see on Jamaica Avenue when you walk outside,” he said. “There’s a lot going on: a lot of noise, a lot of visual stimulation, a lot of smells. I wanted that to come through in the show.”
The exhibit also showcases a series of paintings, photos and historical material of old hip-hop posters, records and cassette tapes.Much of the art focuses on the idea of home, exploring the complex relationship between South Jamaica’s residential communities, the trauma of crack and the evolution of rap from the 1970s to today.
A set of 12 glossy photographs of South Jamaica homes by Xaviera Simmons evokes suburban hopes of stability.Nearby, an empty dollhouse by Karlos Carcamo, shows the loss of those dreams, representing the abandoned homes that became havens for the crack trade. And behind the dollhouse is another home, constructed of crack vials, created by artist SOL’SAX.
SOL’SAX has 10 other powerful pieces in the exhibit’s smaller second room. Hanging upside down on two walls are two figures with ceramic heads, one a police officer and the other a young man dressed in a bandanna and dusty snowsuit. Tam described the work as evoking Yoruban tribal rituals, but the two figures also evoke the thorny relationship between police and residents of South Jamaica, and of so many of the cops and young men who lost their lives during the crack era.
Tam grew up on a steady diet of rap and is careful to note that he doesn’t believe crack created the music. “I don’t think there is as direct a cause-and-effect relationship between crack and rap as it may seem,” he said. “It’s more complicated than that. And I hope this show creates a dialogue.”
“A Jamaica, Queens Thing: Rap and the Crack Era in South Jamaica, Queens” is thought-provoking and visually beautiful.
Jamaica Center for Arts & Learning is located at 161-04 Jamaica Ave., Jamaica, (718) 658-7400. The show closes on Saturday, June 2 with a reception from 4-7 p.m. that features South Jamaica hip-hop legend Cipher Sounds.