In January 2020, an MTA bus driver named Tyrone Hampton found a nonverbal child who was still on board at the end of a run in Upper Manhattan. He called for help and watched the boy until he knew he would get home safely.
It was a little message with a happy ending. But it was the kind of incident that touched Azikiwe Mohammed, 37, an artist who, through various media – painting, textiles, performative installations – is interested in creating safety and welcoming spaces for people of color and for immigrants, their space is often threatened.
“I have a number of warning messages when people can’t make it home,” Mohammed said in an interview at Yeh Art Gallery at St. John’s University in Jamaica, Queens, where the first exhibition of his textile-based art is coming up over. One of the 40 pieces on the show pays homage to Hampton, whose portrait he embroidered onto a vintage denim jacket.
It’s just another entry into Muhammad’s visual universe, an area devoted to everyday heroes and minor acts of care.
“Home has always been a difficult idea for black and brown people,” said Mohammed, referring to issues of discrimination, displacement and invasive policing, such as the death of Breonna Taylor. “I just want better things for our people.”
Mohammed’s art has been on display commercially, including a solo exhibition of paintings at the Anna Zorina Gallery in Chelsea in early 2020. But he doesn’t like the art world and its hierarchies, he said, preferring to call himself “a man who does things”. His exhibitions transform galleries into cozy rooms that are intended to calm down all visitors.
At Yeh, Mohammed transformed the plain interior of the gallery with wooden floors and laminated walls into a country cabin or den with vintage lamps next to each hanging piece.
His textile art begins with objects that he finds in second-hand shops, which he then cuts, combines or decorates. Some quilt-like work shows black people at rest, relaxing in a park. Other pieces begin with vintage clothing to which he adds images or text reminiscent of characters from everyday life, such as the bus driver or the racial history shaped by America: black churches attacked by arsonists and black beaches on which people found safe rest during segregation.
Some works made for the Yeh show include Queens references like the Unisphere or obscure entries in the Queens Memory Project on oral history. Mohammed is not from the borough – his mother, a New York City public school educator, is from Harlem; his father, photographer and drug abuse consultant, was from Brooklyn and lives in the TriBeCa apartment complex where he grew up – but Queens, a magnet for migrants, is its kind of place too.
“Azikiwe is the perfect artist to work in Queens,” said Owen Duffy, director of Yeh Art Gallery, who curated the show. “He has the gift of incorporating the stories of people from different backgrounds into his work.”
If some artists are world builders, Mohammed is a housewife who blurs the lines of art practice in search of something more informed, something we may have known all along.
“He’s always been in his own brilliant universe,” said filmmaker Garrett Bradley, a childhood friend whose projects are currently on the New Museum’s Grief and Grievance show and are competing for an Oscar. Muhammad’s work evoked a reality “rooted in a place that is nostalgic, familiar, and deeply intimate,” she said.
“He’s a prophet and a griot,” said curator Storm Janse van Rensburg, who organized Mohammed’s 2019 exhibition at the SCAD Art Museum in Savannah, Ga., People with Color. “
Mohammed’s performative terrain includes a pop-up thrift store, Jimmy’s Thrift of New Davonhaime. New Davonhaime is a compilation of the names of five cities with a black majority (New Orleans, Detroit, Jackson, Savannah, Birmingham) and represents the entire cultural geography, which is characterized by black work and the great migration.
Disguised as a friendly owner, the artist sells doodads and small works of art and invites visitors to write on postcards which material or emotional resources they would like from New Davonhaime that they do not receive from the USA. (A rerun at the Knockdown Center in Queens in 2017 included a music swap and New Davonhaime Ale at the bar.)
Every year it takes Mohammed two months to travel the country, always by bus, and looks for New Davonhaime wherever it manifests. When he reaches a new city, his method kicks in. “I generally go to a thrift store, pawn shop, and used record store,” he said. “From the three I can get a loose idea of a city. Then I’ll find a bar. ”He comes back with stories and all.
He also visits thrift stores in the New York area and “stores that don’t care about having a name or the guy who has a garage that is open every Saturday.”
For Mohammed, the mission is more than art. A longtime educator, particularly at Church Street School of Music and Art in TriBeCa, he’s now preparing to open his own Black Painters Academy, where students of all levels can learn to paint on the edge of Chinatown and the Lower East Side. The slogan on Instagram is: “Our courses are free because we already pay enough.”
The goal, he said, is “to say yes to people who have been told no” and who otherwise cannot afford art classes. “What is a $ 50 class when you only have $ 30 a week?” He said he would run the school as long as a Kickstarter campaign and various donations allow, and teach the classes himself along with guest artists.
In response to the pandemic, the locale served as a distribution center for the New Davonhaime Food Bank – a very real-life endeavor where Mohammed is raising money and delivering food to people in need.
He encourages art groups to contribute and support their statements on social justice. “Arts organizations are trying to tan it, so let’s take the money and put it where it’s supposed to be,” he said. “So that people can eat – like, actually eat.”
Their core need, said Mohammed, goes beyond categories like art or activism.
“I’m going home,” he said. “That’s part of the job.”
Azikiwe Mohammed: 11439-39202
Until April 30, Yeh Art Gallery, Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall, St. John’s University, 8000 Utopia Parkway, Jamaica, Queens; 718-990-7476; sjuartgallery.org. By arrangement.