On a rainy evening after-hours, Capital Fringe’s founding director Julianne Brienza ushers me out of the storm and into a warm, brightly lit Honfleur Gallery in Anacostia. Brienza is all affability and artistry as she introduces herself to me, and me to the artwork in the space.
Set up in four distinct sections of the gallery space sit vastly different pieces of artwork, none alike in any one way. But one thing tethers each piece to the next, weaving a story across them: Ward 7’s Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.
“Down To Earth” is a collaboration between Capital Fringe and the Kenilworth gardens, a pandemic project which offered residencies to four DMV-based artists as they explored themes of climate change and systemic racism in Ward 7, with Kenilworth as a conduit for that exploration.
The gallery showing, Brienza tells me, is far out of her wheelhouse. Capital Fringe hosts yearly festivals and focuses on performance art productions. A static gallery space seems to be at odds with the expanse and breadth of her creativity. Despite this discrepancy, there seems to be no better person to undertake a project that covers an area’s history from 4000 BC to now, analyzing deep-rooted issues while maintaining a sense of love and respect for the land and its occupants.
Each of the artists involved uses a different medium. We start with Rik Freeman, the winter season artist, and his massive series of paintings depicting all the different living things which occupied Kenilworth over the millennia. With vivid colors and striking imagery, Freeman’s paintings begin with the flora and fauna that once inhabited the land, transitioning into a more troubling scene that shows settler-colonialism in the far background, creeping up on the self-sustaining Piscataway people to whom the land belongs. A final piece shows Anacostia community members cleaning up and farming the land around Kenilworth, acknowledging both the area’s life-giving resources and the threat of gentrification and development via looming high-rise apartments in the background.
The following pieces are widely diverse. Clothing designed by Nikki Hendricks utilizes fully sustainable and recyclable materials to craft outfits representative of the experiences of marginalized communities in and around Kenilworth, showcasing climate justice, Native rights and African American rights. Each outfit is draped or restrained by knotted red ropes, symbolizing the inescapable impact of white society.
Across the gallery from Hendricks’ masterpieces, a map of the Kenilworth gardens and surrounding area leads into a looping 40-minute video of the Anacostia riverbank as you float down from Bladensburg, coming in with the rising tide. It’s impossible not to notice the gray-brown tint to the water, the plastic bottles, soccer balls and debris that float by every few moments. This is the work of Siobhan Rigg, the summer-season artist, whose work is a “multimedia investigative project to document and represent the networks of political influence, financial speculation, language and activism flowing through the ecologies and communities along the tidal Anacostia River in coming times of climate change and rising water.”
Even as Brienza tells me devastating statistics about plastic pollution in the water, she mentions a conversation with another community member about gathering the usable balls and toys that float into the river, cleaning them and giving them back to kids in the area who might have lost them. Her genuine interest, both in the art and the community she hopes to serve, is undeniable.
While Brienza and I talk, and despite the foul weather and lateness of the hour, passersby begin to stop and peer into the gallery. She pauses only briefly to let them in, and I’m struck by the action. There is never a time it seems when Brienza is not willing to share this art and this mission. She tells me while examining another piece — an ecological mapping of the soil makeup and native plants in Kenilworth along the Anacostia River — that this project has no logical end. Though the next month’s schedule is populated with artist talks, community engagement events, local clean-ups and full gallery operating hours, there’s more to discuss that won’t fit into their ambitious schedule.
Brienza said of the project in an earlier press release, “‘Down to Earth’ is an effort to focus on humans’ impact on our land and water, and humans’ ability — and inability — to change the course of where we are headed. We’re leaning on storytelling and art creation to change the trajectory of the climate conversation.”
Now, as I hold a small pamphlet explaining soil pH levels and native plant growth, I see what she means — and all the potential that “Down to Earth” holds to illuminate and inspire.
“Down to Earth” runs from now through April 14 at the Honfleur Gallery, and until April 30 at the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. The gallery is open Wednesday-Saturday 12-5 p.m., and the gardens Monday-Sunday 8 a.m. – 4 p.m. To learn more about the exhibit, visit here.
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