A Hall of Fame for Today’s BCC
For over a hundred years, the Hall of Fame for Great Americans on the campus of Bronx Community College has been a celebrated monument to major figures in the history of our nation. On Saturday, September 21, the outdoor colonnade and its 96 busts were the focus of an afternoon of art and celebration, all of it a challenge to the whole ethos of the Hall of Fame. “Diversity in Public Art: Empowering Community Voices at Bronx Community College’s Hall of Fame” featured music, film, photography, painting, sculpture, mixed media, dance, spoken word, performance art and visual art that offered a contemporary take on what and who is “great.”
“We wanted to present an event that will welcome community input and reflection on the themes of history and commemoration,” said Cynthia Tobar, head of BCC’s Archives, who conceived and organized the festival.
The day began at 12:30 p.m. with a welcome from BCC Interim Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Luis Montenegro, who thanked the sponsors (including NY Humanities and the Bronx Community College Auxiliary Board) and asked “Were we to establish a Hall of Fame for Great Americans today, who would we include in this group?” The next four hours of art and artists endeavored to answer that question.
The Central American drumming, singing and dancing of the Bodoma Garifuna Culture Band kicked off the day from the stage of the Gould Memorial Library auditorium.
A program of films then screened in rotation in the auditorium. Director Christina Barba presented Living in the Shadow of the Armenian Genocide, a short documentary about her family’s experiences fleeing one of the great horrors of the 20th century and coming to America. “Being a part of today is an amazing experience,” she said, enthused about “being surrounded by other artists who are exploring what it means to be an American.”
The Five Boros Project presented storytellers Latanya DeVaughn, James McSherry and Peggy Robles-Alvarado. With the Hall of Fame as a dramatic backdrop, each told the story of unsung but “great Bronxites” in their lives.
Visual art in The Hall of Fame Gallery in Bliss Hall featured artist Yvette Ramos-Volz and her modern stained-glass window depicting fingerprints. “The immigrant worker is part of the fabric that makes up our great nation and their fingerprints are all over our lives,” she explained. And in perhaps the most direct comment on the Hall of Fame, the exhibit also included a scale model of the bust of Robert E. Lee recently removed from the Hall. But this one was covered with fungus, “a metaphor for the ‘Lost Cause’ myth of the Civil War,” according to the artist Zaq Landsberg.
The absent bust of Robert E. Lee made possible the most whimsical moment of the day. Artist Grisel Acosta invited participants to place their heads on the now empty pedestal and become human busts, which were then photographed in sepia tones.
Acosta reappeared reading her poetry in Gould Memorial Library’s green-marbled Rotunda along with Shenia Rudolph. The Rotunda was also the scene of a video from the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture. Student interns selected new figures for a place in the Hall of Fame and the film featured artists’ renderings of what their busts might look like. Among those so honored: Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and Harvey Milk.
Throughout the afternoon, the Rotunda hosted an opportunity to make art, as the community-based Laundromat Project encouraged attendees to fashion their own buttons with original images or slogans. Said teaching artist Fay Bonas, “You never know who’s in your neighborhood. There are amazing people we should include in public art.”
Not all of the attractions stayed in one location. A team of muses playing rhythm instruments wove their way through the campus in a performance piece by Alona Weiss. There was even a protest march of sorts that called for the inclusion in the Hall of Fame of DJ Kool Herc, who created Hip-Hop music in 1973, a stone’s throw from BCC on Sedgewick Avenue. “We are going to reclaim the Hall of Fame for the community!” declared former BCC Art and Music Professor Howard Skrill, waving a poster of DJ Kool Herc as the demonstrators trekked from Osborne Gate to the Hall.
The day ended with an awards ceremony for the artists — first place going to Landsberg’s Fungus Robert E. Lee — and talk of the event returning next year.