Funk, God, Jazz and Medicine—Black Radical Brooklyn Honors Its Roots in Weeksville

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Whether or not you were in New York this summer, you may have heard about the Kara Walker exhibit in Williamsburg’s soon-to-be demolished Domino Sugar Factory; the artist installed an 80 ton sugar sphinx-like woman with the intentionally ironic title “A Subtlety.” The gargantuan and immersive piece (the room had a sharp stench of slow caramelization) was intended to be an “homage to the unpaid and overworked artisans who have refined our sweet tastes from the cane fields to the kitchens of the new world.”

Walker installed the artwork in conjunction with Creative Time, a public art powerhouse that has a new work entitled Funk, God, Jazz, and Medicine: Black Radical Brooklyn at the lush Weeksville Heritage Center in Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights. With ties to food, it is a collection of four community-based art commissions located on the historic site of the 19th century African American community of Weeksville, Brooklyn.

Artists Xenobia Bailey, Simone Leigh, Otabenga Jones & Associates and Bradford Young have worked together to re-imagine the power of healing self-determination behind one of the nation’s first free black communities. As Urban Omnibus notes, Weeksville’s 1838 founding was “eleven years after the abolition of slavery in New York State and 27 years before the 13th Amendment formally abolished slavery across the United States. With landowning a prerequisite for men to gain citizenship and the vote, the town’s founding epitomized the black struggle for self-determination, and it pioneered a model for developing free, self-sufficient black communities in an era hostile to the proposition.”

While no piece in the current exhibition bears exclusive ties to food, the ongoing artwork is dedicated to every aspect of community resolve, and therefore incorporates food to underline a theme of social resilience: over the coming weeks, the center will host free cooking demonstrations, integrated nutrition coaching and produce sales from the on-site farm.

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Volunteers at Weeksville tend to the on-site Bio-heritage Farm, which acts as a living as a living installation at the historical center. Credit: Clay Williams

Weeksville Heritage Center is a surprisingly sprawling campus of various projects nestled on a plot of fragrant grass and vibrant wildflowers. The three Historic Hunterfly Road Houses serve as the centerpieces of the space, while a new 23,000-square-foot center contains a crop of community projects and research tools.

Inside the new building are two innovative and food-related vendors: Rusty Fields General Store Popup Shop and Bread Love. Rusty Fields serves as a gift shop of sorts to Weeksville, but the mission of the business goes far beyond its trinkets. The shop seeks to offer a breadth of goods and multi-purpose services to the community by providing a marketplace for local purveyors that brings artists and craftspeople from the five boroughs to Brooklyn. The store offers items such as healing tea blends from Sacred Vibes Herbal Apothecary, Divine Daughters‘ tinctures, spicy spreads from Xilli, a unique mushroom tonic brewed by Gordon Kindlon (former owner of Urban Spring), scrumptious vegan takeout from Tohi Wellness and condiments made with produce grown on Bio-heritage Farm on the Weeksville property.

Rusty Fields is a locavore’s dream, but Cornelius Byrd, founder and executive director, insists that the space will be so much more than a shop. “One program we’d like to implement,” he says, “is to find a calming bridge between food and violence.” Rusty Fields will eventually host self-defense workshops coupled with wellness-focused cooking classes. A tangibility of fresh food helps to instill a theme of healing, Byrd stresses. Additionally, the shop hopes to offer free food for community members.

Bread Love also has a home at Weeksville through October 12 to sell local foods and fresh produce from Oko Farms. The nook features cold drinks, coffee and espresso beverages, “quick pick munchies” and a handful of hot items. Bread Love was bustling with business during the launch party on September 20, but the kitchen still managed to churn out a sun-kissed lunch of green salad, tangy corn and basil tomato salsa. Interested guests can check out their supper clubs happening at Weeksville on Sundays from 2-6:00 p.m. that will include a pig roast on October 5 and a seafood boil on October 12.

The Weeksville property is also home to Bio-heritage Farm run by Eric-Michael Rodriguez and Yemi Amu. Though the farm has been in operation for five years, a recent grant from the USDA has helped the farm to implement a historical African American seed lending library, an apiary, a duck pond and entrepreneurial opportunities for farmers. The farm is also home to programming for elementary school children and teens. Rodriguez bears the unique title of Living Cultivations Curator and Farm Manager, and considers Bio-heritage as a living museum in itself. Visitors can swing by the farm during business hours on Wednesdays through Fridays to harvest your own produce for purchase.

Finally, guests are welcome to join events listed in Creative Time’s calendar for free workshops at Weeksville on canning, urban beekeeping, pickling and more (sign us up for this weekend’s hive construction to honey harvest class).

Overall, Funk, God, Jazz, and Medicine: Black Radical Brooklyn subtly hints to its audience that, in the case of Weeksville, food is an indispensable pillar of community determination. As a symbol, it represents the creation of something out of seemingly nothing as a means of shared subsistence and nourishment.

Funk, God, Jazz and Medicine will remain at Weeksville until October 12. It’s open from 12-6:00 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday. 

Photo credit: Clay Williams

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