John Fekner & Brian Albert, “Hymn (Martin Luther King Jr.) Howard Beach racial incident” (1986)
I don’t know why John Fekner isn’t cited more than he is by the art (particularly street art) community but he should be. The pioneer of street art has been remixing public space in a way that most street talents are only catching up to now.
Back on December 20, 1986, New York was a different place. In the Howard Beach neighborhood of Queens, racial tension exploded into headlines when a gang of white youths brutally beat three black men who had stumbled into the neighborhood, chasing one of the three to his death when he was hit by a car crossing the Shore Parkway. His name was Michael Griffith.
More than 5,000 angry protesters marched through the streets of Howard Beach, carrying signs and chanting “…This is not Johannesburg.” (Queens Tribune)
Lifetime Queens resident, John Fekner was deeply touched by the incident and collaborated with photographer Brian Albert to make a makeshift memorial on Grand Central Parkway by Van Wyck Expressway. A few years later it was re-created and is now next to the C.W. Post Interfaith Chapel at Long Island University in Brookville, NY. Unfortunately, it is weatherworn and in need of repair. John and Brian hope to fix it up this spring.
The original work, made of spraypaint on an electrical box, photograph, plexiglas and Christmas lights, has a huge blowup print that had lights underneath, which were hot-wired to the electrical box. They would light up when the highway lights came on.
According to Fekner, this “is a what it looked like as you were whizzing by on the Grand Central Parkway.”
At the dawn of a new era of American racial relations I thought it was only fitting to remind those that what has been a long road doesn’t feel as impossible as it once did.
As Fekner says when I asked him about the new Obama administration:
I think the Obama administration will reinstate ideals that we have neglected over the last eight years and longer. New principles, responsibilities and solutions would be a good way to start. Inventive approaches to teaching and learning through interactivity. And fresh air and dignity for everyone!
Here’s to hoping.