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Dumbo’s Hidden Gem (And We Mean Literally, Hidden)

Two Prism journalists’ exploration of Smack Mellon, one of many recently reopened art galleries tucked away within the streets of Dumbo

By Chloe Vincent and Natalie Marcus-Wade

Once the non-existent bell dismisses Packer students, there are a few immediate local hangout spots that they are drawn to. Right outside the gates of the Brooklyn Heights school, there is the beloved Harry’s (or Sunny Delicatessen, according to absolutely nobody). There are the Montague Street classics like Hanco’s and Five Guys (rest in peace) for a quick bite to eat. For the more athletic types there are the piers, just a walk down Joralemon, with basketball courts, open soccer fields, and beach volleyball courts. When thinking of spots frequented by Packer kids, what decidedly does not come to mind are the camouflaged art galleries hidden in Dumbo, just a ten minute walk away. 

We sought out to discover the wonders beyond the delis and soccer fields, and found ourselves in  a world of which we have zero knowledge. Absolutely zero. The world of art. 

We started our day on the corner of Front St. and Washington St., or that one spot with the bridge in the background where everyone takes Instagram photos, as you may recognize it. After a quick Google Search into “art galleries near me,” we discovered Smack Mellon on 92 Plymouth St, a non-profit art organization. We then walked past it about three times before realizing that the entrance was not, in fact, to an office building. 

Upon entering, we were met with ample hand sanitizer and a thermometer that had been built into the wall, silencing any doubts we had about the safety of reopening such galleries. After walking up a few stairs, we turned to the right and were met with an expansive exhibit ripe with all kinds of art of all different mediums. The current exhibition is about women across the globe and their experiences with discrimnation, both systemic and social. So, using our vast (a.k.a. non-existent) experience as art critiques, we started our walk through. 

Yvonne Shortt is a Queens-based artist who focuses on the inequality regarding race, disability and sexism. African American Marbleization; An Act of Civil Disobedience: What Remains Head & Trunk, 2020 Daddy and Me Afro Pick, 2020 combines classic Greek and Roman sculpture with Shortt’s lived experiences as a woman of color.

Natalie: I think we were both obsessed with these the moment we saw them. Sculpture just has a natural way of grabbing your attention, especially when it’s made out of marble. I particularly loved the way she used a medium that was so typically modeled after White Romans and Greeks and instead portrayed an African-American woman. The highlight for me is the hair pick. While I was definitely in awe of the technical beauty of the What Remains Head and Trunk sculpture, I could not help but be more impressed by the subtle yet powerful emotional resonance of Shortt’s Daddy and Me Afro Pick. 

Chloe: Out of all of the artwork we saw, this one was definitely my favorite. Even as I walked into the gallery, I was immediately drawn to this piece, positioned so carefully that it was almost as if the sun’s golden reflection intentionally highlighted it. I loved both the careful detail and the symbolic hair theme, representing Shortt’s unique identity. But, the contrast of the historical Italian Renaissance sculptures and the powerful message on modern social justice is what really stuck with me, even long after we left. 

Deborah Hirsch and Iaia Filiberti collaborated to create NIMBY (HeLa), 2016, a piece dedicated to Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman whose cancer-cells were taken for experimentation without her knowledge or consent. The HeLa cell line has since been a monumental piece of research in the study of human cells. The piece is part of a larger series called “Not in My Black Yard,” which focuses on women who fought for environmental or human rights throughout the 19th and 20th century. Hirsh is a New York and Italy-based Brazilian artist who focuses on “contemporary anthropology.” Filiberti is a Milan-based Italian artist who focuses on representing women who have historically been neglected. 

Natalie: I think when we think of “human experimentation,” our minds immediately go to something straight out of a horror movie. But ultimately that is not how a lot of these wrongdoings manifest. Lacks’ case is tragic not because of any intense brutalization, but because it was plain scientific malpractice made possible because of the societal devaluing of Black women’s voices. From my understanding, these are all scientific papers that involve the HeLA cell line, but the one’s stamped with “rejected” do not mention Lacks’ name, but the ones that are “approved” do. The piece is a memorial, both to Lacks as a person but also to the continued injustice in not recognizing her contribution to science. It is undeniably brilliant and deeply moving. 

Chloe: This piece was especially interesting to us because it was relevant to our chemistry class material – we are learning about the inequities in STEM fields. Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman whose cancer cells were used nonconsensually. She is a prime example of the science community’s horrific past in the exploitation of women of color. NIMBY (HeLa) covered the entire wall, possibly representing the vastness of this piece really makes you stop in your tracks and sympathize with Lacks. 

Filmmaker, photographer, author, and Brooklyn native, Donna Bassin created the series Here I Am to tell the story of her individual experiences of her subjects, Shontel, Sufiyyah, Danielle, Dulce, and Tracy, through photography and brief excerpts interviews.

Natalie: I could go on forever about the symbolism of the flag. I think it is both a representation of American ideals and exactly how we as a country have failed these ideals in that the flag has been, and continues to be, used as a weapon. Using it here, draped around the frame, accessories to the subjects of the photographs, perfectly captures its contradictory nature as both a symbol of freedom and oppression, and attempts to reclaim the flag as a positive representation once again. Especially this being paired with the diverse range of interviewees, who go into detail about their experiences in this country, I think Bassin reframes what being “American” means. It is so well-done and so relevant. 

Chloe: The Here I Am series struck me because of its unique approach in tackling the struggles of POC Americans and their identities. A common theme that I noticed throughout the gallery was contradiction. The American flag symbolizes liberty and justice, but the women posing with the flag in the images live in a world where even as American citizens, they are far from having equality. I especially love that all the women shared that they participated in the shoot to continue to fight for their constitutional rights and spread awareness of the identity crisis they and many other POC Americans face.

Mexican American multidisciplinary artist, Indira Cesarine focuses on feminism and women empowerment, creating Harriet to honor Harriet Tubman, an American abolitionist and leader of the Underground Railroad. 

Natalie: Obviously this is eye-catching. It definitely stole my attention way before I even saw who it was. Neon light is one of those things that translates brilliantly into pictures, but it is worth noting that in-person this piece was even more impressive, with the bright colors standing on top of the pale white wall. The fact that it is a portrait of Harriet Tubman took me by surprise, but I think Cesarine’s choice is perfect. Tubman’s contributions to the abolitionist movement and the intense bravery and perseverance she represents deserve to be highlighted. And I think Cesarine took that literally, using neon as a means of emphasis to hook the viewer in instantly.

Chloe: Harriet is not something you expect to see at an art gallery. Its medium – neon signs made it stand out in a sea of more neutral colors. The use of neon signs in art is becoming increasingly more popular and I can definitely see why. They are an amazing way to emphasize the importance of something because of their bright pop. The moment I laid eyes on this piece, I immediately wanted to know more. As I touched on earlier, I think a big theme in this exhibit is contradiction and I think Harriet definitely plays into that idea because of Harriet Tubman’s historical significance and the modernness of the neon sign medium. 

Obviously, we are not professional artists. Or professional art critiques. Or professional anything that might qualify us to talk about this exhibit. But even as unqualified as we are, we were still able to connect with the art on a deep level, on a personal, human level. A picture is worth a thousand words, but it is also worth a million emotions. As we move through life, it is critical that we deepen our understanding of the world we live in, which art is often a reflection of. Witnessing individual expression is an invaluable aspect of growing up, of maturing, of learning.

And also, it was pretty fun to go discover something we had not seen before, and to explore the possibilities of the brilliant city we live in. To never look for those special hidden gems so prevalent in New York is to deny yourself the excitement of a new adventure. So, on a lighter note, we highly suggest that all Packer students searching for a change in their daily routine check out not only Smack Mellon, but all of the other art galleries that Brooklyn has to offer. After all, they are practically right around the corner (as long as you do not mistake them for office buildings)!

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