Shapeshifting: Transformations in Native American Art at the Peabody Essex Museum

Rebecca Belmore (born 1960), Anishinaabe; Fringe, 2008; Inkjet print on paper; 21 x 63 inches (53.3 x 160 cm); Collection of Catherine Sullivan-Kropa and William Kropa; © Rebecca Belmore, image courtesy Rebecca Belmore, photograph by Henri Robideau.

A terrific dialogue is currently unfolding in the galleries of the Peabody Essex Museum, with an exhibition that explores links between historic and contemporary Native American art. Featuring works drawn from worldwide collections, Shapeshifting: Transformations in Native American Art, takes us on an unforgettable, celebratory journey that transcends boundaries and erases stereotypes along its path.

A concept in Native cultures, shapeshifting refers to the ability of humans changing into animals or supernatural beings and vice versa. In essence, it refers to the idea that creativity has always been part of Native cultures.

“…Native American art has always taken cultural knowledge and metaphors and refreshed them with new ideas and forms[1]” writes Curator Karen Kramer Russell in the exhibition catalog. In the past, “…museum exhibitions have focused largely on either historical or contemporary Native American art, but with very little mixing of the two.” Shapeshifting shatters the notion that all art created by Native Americans is either ethnographic or crafty in appearance.

Kent Monkman (born 1965), Cree; Théâtre de Cristal, 2007; Chandelier, plastic beads, acrylic string, cabouchons, simulated buffalo hide, and Super-8 film: Group of Seven Inches, 2005 (7:34 minutes), edition 1/3; 168 x 240 inches (diam. approx.) (426.7 x 609.6 cm); The Glenbow Museum, Alberta, Canada, purchased with funds from Historic Resource Fund, 2008, 2008.099.001; Courtesy Kent Monkman and Bruce Bailey Art Projects; © Kent Monkman, image courtesy MacKenzie Art Gallery, photograph by Don Hall.

Kent Monkman (born 1965), Cree; Théâtre de Cristal, 2007; Chandelier, plastic beads, acrylic string, cabouchons, simulated buffalo hide, and Super-8 film: Group of Seven Inches, 2005 (7:34 minutes), edition 1/3; 168 x 240 inches (diam. approx.) (426.7 x 609.6 cm); The Glenbow Museum, Alberta, Canada, purchased with funds from Historic Resource Fund, 2008, 2008.099.001; Courtesy Kent Monkman and Bruce Bailey Art Projects; © Kent Monkman, image courtesy MacKenzie Art Gallery, photograph by Don Hall.

Kent Monkman’s electrifying video installation Théâtre de Cristal opens the exhibition and sets the tone for the rest of the show. Referencing a tipi made of clear plastic beads lit by an elaborate chandelier, Monkman critiques and challenges “the dominant Euro-American ethnocentric construction of Native North America embedded in a global consciousness.[2]” Paul Chaat Smith, Curator of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian considers Théâtre de Cristal “a work from the future about people who aren’t supposed to have one.[3]The installation is brilliant and the accompanying text should not be missed (even if you are a White European male, and you’ll know what I mean by this if you see this exhibit).

Kent Monkman (born 1965), Cree; Théâtre de Cristal, 2007; Chandelier, plastic beads, acrylic string, cabouchons, simulated buffalo hide, and Super-8 film: Group of Seven Inches, 2005 (7:34 minutes), edition 1/3; 168 x 240 inches (diam. approx.) (426.7 x 609.6 cm); The Glenbow Museum, Alberta, Canada, purchased with funds from Historic Resource Fund, 2008, 2008.099.001; Courtesy Kent Monkman and Bruce Bailey Art Projects; © Kent Monkman, image courtesy MacKenzie Art Gallery, photograph by Don Hall.

Organized thematically, many works in Shapeshifting rely on politics to convey a concept, while others explore identity, place, and cultural heritage.

Marie Watt’s Column Blanket Stories, evoke the blankets infested with smallpox and other diseases brought by Europeans and distributed to Natives across the Americas. Independent scholar Kara English notes that today, blankets are associated with beauty, honor and respect and that “these [blankets] prized items weave together an intergenerational continuum and are gifted at births, comings-of-age, graduations, marriages, naming and honoring.[4]

Marie Watt (born 1967), Seneca; Column (Blanket Stories), 2003; Wool blankets and cedar; 144 x 20 x 20 inches (365.8 x 50.8 x 50.8 cm); Collection of Deborah Green; © Marie Watt, image courtesy Marie Watt and PDX Contemporary Art.

Rebecca Belmore’s Fringe, a powerful and haunting photograph of a female figure references the abuse of Native women and of the land. Bob Haouzous’ Wheel of Fortune is a deliciously superb work featuring the face of Geronimo surrounded by descriptive words. This wonderful work is a call to Native people to stop hiding behind general stereotypes. And yes, the Wheel of Fortune spins just as it does in the television game.

Bob Haozous (born 1943), Chiricahua Apache; Wheel of Fortune, 2005; Steel and paint; 96 inches (diam.) (243.8 cm); Courtesy the artist; © Bob Haozous.

Shapeshifting is a provocative exhibition filled with complex ideas. It opened my eyes to a world of Native American art making not frequently discussed or exhibited outside non-Native art or anthropological museums. As far as the implications of an exhibition with many politically charged artworks, Karen Kramer Russell says “the intention is that people will have a broader and deeper understanding of Native art and culture.”

Shapeshifting captures the creative spirit and resilience of cultures that have long been repressed.  It’s a remarkable and fascinating exhibition that changed my perception of contemporary Native American art and its transformations through time. The works in this exhibition foster an enriching dialogue that should be nurtured and savored over multiple visits to the Peabody Essex Museum.

Shapeshifting: Transformations in Native American Art is on view through April 29, 2012 at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA.


[1] Page 15, [2] Page 24, [3] Page 220, [4] Page 180

Documenting Boston’s Murals: What They Say and How They Say It

Documenting Boston’s Murals: What They Say and How They Say It, a short essay written for the Boston Society of Architects on my attempts at documenting every extant mural in the City of Boston.

One on One: Exploring the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists

The best way to get to know a city or a neighborhood is by walking its streets. Earlier this summer, I set out to explore the area of Roxbury roughly bounded by Seaver Street, Walnut Avenue and Crawford Street. I headed down Walnut Avenue and walked around the grounds of Abbotsford (Oak Bend), one of the finest stone mansions in Boston.

Abbotsford, designed in 1872 by Alden Frink in the Gothic Revival style is home to a gem known as the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists.  The grand mansion has served many purposes in the past which include a disciplinary school for boys in the Boston Public School system. It was purchased in 1976 by the National Center of Afro-American Artists and is now the largest independent black cultural arts institution in New England. Its collection exceeds 4,000 works of art which include well known artists such as Charles White, Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence as well as living contemporary black artists from around the world.

John Wilson’s Eternal Presence (1987) greets viewers upon entering the museum. Wilson drew inspiration from various cultures including Ancient Olmec and Buddhist works to represent the African Diasporas dispersed throughout the world (also represented in the museum’s collection). Once inside, visitors can expect to experience “Aspelta – A Nubian King’s Burial Chamber” one of the museum’s most notable and delightful exhibitions.

Apart from looking at the art currently on display, my experience at the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists also included a 45 minute long conversation with Ben Alleyne, a painter and sculptor who has been the caretaker of the mansion for more than twenty years. His monumental sculptures can be seen on the grounds of the museum.

For an off the beaten path museum experience in Boston, the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists is an excellent choice. The museum is easily accessible by public transportation. The MBTA Bus Routes #22 from Ashmont, Jackson Square or Ruggles Station and #29 from Jackson Square or Ruggles stop at Walnut Avenue. The museum is roughly a ten minute walk from the bus stop.

Review: Close Distance

Raul Gonzalez, Wake up Call (On My Last Nerve), 2011 | Ink and Bic pen, 45 by 65 inches acrylic. Courtesy the artist and Carroll & Sons Gallery, Boston.

I may be too young to remember when was the last time Boston experienced an exhibition that featured the work of Latino artists living in this city or its surrounding towns. I may also be too young to remember Grupo Ñ, an experimental but now dissolved Latino art collective from the 1980′s that became an instrumental force in Boston’s underground art scene.

“Close Distance,” at the Boston Center for the Arts’ Mills Gallery is the first exhibition in nearly thirty years featuring the works of six emerging Boston area Latino artists “practicing across diverse media and national borders.” Curated by Liz Munsell, a local curator with DiscordiaFilms and a Curatorial Research Associate at the Museum of Fine Arts, “Close Distance” is engaging, provoking and riveting.

The exhibition is as culturally diverse and distinct as are the artistic vocabularies presented. From the site specific work of Daniela Rivera, a 2010 Foster Prize finalist to Raul Gonzalez III and others; religion, identity, pop culture, politics, and institutional oppression are all explored, commented upon and richly juxtaposed throughout the gallery and within individual works.

Vela Phelan, Witch Doctor Wrestlers, 2011. Courtesy of the artist.

Vela Phelan’s site specific performance-installation Deviant Idols in the Black Divine, a work  modeled after a temple and composed of “spiritual idols for a modern world” struck a chord with me. A performance artist, Mr. Phelan’s installation opened up a world of memories growing up in the Dominican Republic. Having experienced the mysticism and the commodization of Santeria and Voodoo practices on a personal level, this installation moved me in ways only the pulsating beats of African drums at a palo ceremony have.

Because of the spiritual relationship that evolves between the viewer and the artist, Mr. Phelan has decided to carry out a 5-part performance that will take place almost every Thursday at Mills Gallery. “What will happen is a bit unknown to me (and to him),” says curator Liz Munsell “but it will be a journey that takes us outside the gallery walls – physically and metaphysically.”

Referencing minimalism and the literal collapse of institutional spaces, Daniela Rivera’s Fatiga material allows for an exhilirating experience as juxtaposed with the dexterous, signature “self-taught” style drawings of Raul Gonzalez.

Anabel Vazquez Rodriguez, Visión Doble, Super 8. 2011. Film. Courtesy of the artist.

In the film Visión Doble (Double Vision), multimedia artist Anabel Vazquez Rodriguez juxtaposes paradise-like images of Puerto Rico with political demonstrations held in and around Boston’s Copley Square. The film is an autobiographical journey that transcends borders and cultural boundaries.

While Boston may not have a tightly knit Latino arts collective like New York, Los Angeles and Miami do, “Close Distance” gathers together local Boston artists who for the most part had known each other prior to this exhibition at Mills Gallery. “Because these artists are all floating in the same “alternative” spaces or artist institutions as other Bostonians,” says Ms. Munsell, “I would say that they have much common, including language and culture, that brings them together.”

With “Close Distance, I hoped to bring them together a bit more” says Ms. Munsell, whose approach to curating is not solely interesting on a formal or aesthetic level – but has social context or a theoretical framework as its backdrop. “I can already see that has happened in a major way, but the show has just begun!” she added. “Close Distance” is rich in talent and abundant in excellent work.

****

Artist and Curator Talk Wednesday, August 3 | 6 – 9pm
Performance with Artists Yassy Goldie and Bru Jø Wednesday, August 17 | 6 – 8pm
These artists’ work touches on the construction of cultural identity. Their guerrilla tactics have been known to simultaneously intrigue and disorient audiences.

Vela Phelan explores the duality “ego/spirituality” through objects and actions found in his performance-installation Deviant Idols of The Black Devine. In his words “a Quest to expand the Shadow my EGO CASTS,” this five-part performance will take place at Mills Gallery Thursdays July 21 & 28, August 11 & 25 at 7pm, and as part of the Artist/Curator talk on Wednesday, Aug 3rd.

Review: Mark Bradford

Photo of Mark Bradford by Fredrik Nilsen, courtesy: theartnewspaper.com

When Nicholas Baume left his position as chief curator of the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston (ICA) in 2009 to join the Public Art Fund of New York City, the future of Boston’s contemporary art scene was questioned.  With Baume’s curatorial insight, the ICA organized the first major museum retrospective of artists Tara Donovan and Shepard Fairey, thereby breaking attendance records (and bringing in tons of dough) and shining a light on Boston’s contemporary art scene. Since Baume’s departure, the ICA has exhibited a retrospective of Roni Horn and Damian Ortega organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art and Tate Modern in London respectively.  In its quest to continue breaking the blurred boundaries of the art world, the current exhibition at the ICA is the first museum survey of the Los Angeles born and based artist Mark Bradford.

Organized by The Wexner Center for the Arts at The Ohio State University, Mark Bradford (November 19 – March 13, 2011) is one of the most powerful exhibitions I have seen in recent memory. Bradford is known for his large scale abstract paintings which resemble dense political and physical maps. These paintings are created out of carefully selected found materials which include, but not limited to, weathered billboard paper, permanent weave end paper, newsprint, carbon paper, and wrapping paper. In spite of their abstract qualities, Bradford’s works are filled with subject matter and intense social commentaries.

Experiencing the works in the exhibition, the phrase “silence is golden” constantly came to mind. The moment one is confronted with a work of art, in particular one created by a contemporary artist, “silence is golden” does not apply. But as I stood in front of Bradford’s larger than life paintings, I wanted to find words that would help me explain the emotions I was feeling.  I was struck speechless by the intensity of the materials, colors and images and texts in Bradford’s works.

Untitled (Shoe), 2003. Billboard paper, acrylic gel medium, and additional mixed media. 30 x 31 1/2 inches. The Speyer Family Collection. Photo: Bruce M. White.

Among the works that still resonate with me are Untitled (Shoe) 2003, Scorched Earth, 2006 and Black Venus, 2005. In Untitled (Shoe), Bradford has taken a billboard advertisement for Reebok sneakers and peeled away the image of the shoe leaving only its outline.  With this piece, Bradford is making a commentary on black identity and sneaker culture, “I feel black male masculinity, especially in the last 10 or 15 or 20 years has been narrowed based on a kind of popular culture. Popular culture has determined that [as] black males, we exist in about two or three different models, the sports figure, the gangster figure, or the reverend.” Mark Bradford employs stereotypes to break away stereotypes.

Scorched Earth, 2006. Billboard paper, photomechanical reproductions, acrylic gel medium, carbon paper, acrylic paint, bleach, and additional mixed media on canvas. 94 1/2 x 118 inches. Collection of Dennis and Debra Scholl. Photo: Bruce M. White

In Scorched Earth, Bradford uses a dramatic and unforgettable red and black palette to reference the moment in history when in 1921 35 city blocks in Tulsa, Oklahoma were burned and destroyed in the riots resulting from the tensions between blacks and whites. In Black Venus, Bradford “examines class-race, and gender based economies that structure urban society in the United States.”

“”I was always supported in the domestic realm, and I was always strong about standing up for myself, but there were still struggles in my life. Reading about the postmodern condition made me realize it was about independence, about doing your own thing. And that’s a state of mind. It’s not an art work or a book. It’s a state of mind. Fluidity, juxtapositions, cultural borrowing- they’ve all been going on for centuries. The only authenticity there is what I put together.” – Mark Bradford

Black Venus, 2005 Detail. Mixed media collage, 130 x 196 inches. Courtesy Sikkema Jenkins & Co. Image taken from Art21’s documentary on Mark Bradford as shown on PBS.

Mark Bradford at the ICA has the potential of igniting a rich dialogue on the urban landscape and race relations in America (in particular Boston, since the exhibition is currently in the city). His grid-like paintings resemble physical, political and topographic maps, allowing the viewer to imagine the rivers, mountains, lakes, elevations, boundaries or the ideological differences that divide and unite people. I loved this exhibition! I loved it because it is powerful and unabashed in exposing the economies of urban centers and their impact on people of color living in America today. I loved it because Mark Bradford is one of the few contemporary artists of color dealing with these questions through abstract art.

Will you go and see the exhibition, contemplate Bradford’s works in silence (go on a Friday night) and start a dialogue of your own?

Making a case for the ähts

As a student in the Boston Public School system, I felt deprived and envious of the things children in suburban schools enjoyed, especially in terms of the numerous fine arts classes.  As a student of Art History at Boston University and a professional working in the field of Historic Preservation, the career choices I have made speak to the detrimental effect the lack of exposure to the arts growing up have had on my life. My passion for breaking the boundaries and nurturing a dialog of multiculturalism in the arts and preservation has shaped me into a strong advocate for our cultural heritage.

As a personal and professional goal, I hope to aid in erasing the lines of demarcation that we has humans impose upon ourselves (and upon others). Whether physical, imaginary, social or even psychological, that theoretical red line suffocates the creative genius in all of us. Why must we restraint ourselves to doing only one thing, reaching out to a particular group of people, or working in a particular community and in the process excluding others? The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), founded in 1965 with the mission of bringing arts to all Americans has been pushing the boundaries that persist in the arts and culture.  

Not every citizen in America has access to the visual and performance arts and those that do most often possess a higher education and are politically savvy enough to make decisions that affect the needs of everyone in their community. Unfortunately, not everyone is this privileged and the lack of support for the NEA have also exposed its failures, in that marginalized people who live in the periphery of major urban centers or in cities where funding for the arts is lacking, have become battlegrounds for both critics  and supporters of the NEA. Because “a great country deserves great art,” I firmly believe that the NEA should not only remain an active organization, but its budget should not be cut. Many of the programs supported by the NEA are geared towards the education of every American citizen. These programs promote and foster a cultural exchange and understanding much needed in our society today and also inject millions of dollars into the local, state and national economies.

Artist for Humanity Building - South Boston

Fostering creativity in learning is at the top of the NEA’s mission. As a result of their initiatives in education, more and more children are being exposed to the arts in their schools and communities. At risk youth are nurtured in after school programs that promote confidence and self sufficiency through the arts. A local example of an organization supported by the NEA is the highly successful Artists for Humanity in South Boston, whose mission is to bridge the economic, racial and social divisions by providing underserved youth with the keys to self sufficiency through paid employment in the arts.

According to Safe and Smart: Making the After-School Hours Work for Kids, a research conducted by the U.S Department of Education shows that children who participate in after-school programs generally attain higher academic achievement, behave better in class, handle conflict more effectively and cooperate more with authority figures and with their peers than their counterparts who are not in after-school programs. The National Endowment for the Arts grants awards to state, federal and local non-profits who are making a difference in the life of many children through after school and summer programs in the arts.

In these historic times in our country, the role of the NEA matters today more than ever. The election of Barack Obama, the nation’s first African American president has shed light on many issues of cultural identity, race and multiculturalism in the arts and in our society. A newly re-invigorated dialog on these issues has surfaced and I believe the NEA will be at the center of it in the following years.  In“A Ministry of Culture? Not in America,” published on February 23, 1995, Boston Globe journalist Jeff Jacoby calls for the abolition of the National Endowment for the Arts while ignoring the multicultural fabric of America. Jacoby argues that “the NEA isn’t the mainstay of art in America, the arts have flourished in America for 219 years, the NEA has existed for 30. Copley’s painting, Ive’s scores, Whitman’s poems, O’Neill’s plays, Melville’s novels, Saint Gaudens’ sculptures, Stieglitz photographs- the vast outpouring of art in the United States pre 1965 renders preposterous the notion that art would starve and shrivel without the NEA.”

Shaw Memorial, Boston Common - Augustus Saint Gaudens - Frame by Stanford White

What the author fails to mention is that photographer and champion of Modern Art Alfred Stieglitz grew up in a well to do family whose parents encouraged his artistic pursuits by giving him a monetary allowance, eliminating the need to earn a living by means other than photography. Jacoby also fails to mention that John Singleton Copley went on the Grand Tour, a pivotal moment in the life of some of the wealthiest citizens in our country or that Augustus Saint Gaudens was the son of a successful business owner who sent their son to study sculpture at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, one of the world’s most prestigious institutions of architecture and the fine arts.  The most penetrating fact that Jacoby fails to mention when calling for the abolition of the NEA is that the artists he praises as having made it on their own without the help of organizations like the NEA are all White, Anglo-Saxon males. This commentary is problematic because it fails in many ways to acknowledge the ever important multicultural point of view in the art world.

In times of economic difficulties, those who are affected the most tend to be the economically disadvantage people in our society. Can we really afford to further denigrate our society, our values, and our cultural heritage more than we have already done so by abolishing an organization that has broken and has yet to break many boundaries in exchanging dialogues rich in multiculturalism? I beg to differ.

Difficult economic times call for drastic measures and our cultural heritage is the first one to suffer. Recently, President Obama unveiled this year’s fiscal budget and in a surprising blow to those in the field of historic preservation and the arts, the Save America’s Treasures, the nation’s only bricks-and-mortar grant program has been proposed for elimination. The National Endowment for the Arts is in itself the best economic stimulus package there is. According to a recent study released by the National Governors Association titled Arts & the Economy: Using Arts and Culture to Stimulate State Economic Development states, the arts and culture-related industries, provide direct economic benefits to states and communities by creating jobs, attracting investments, generating tax revenues, further stimulating local economies through tourism and consumer purchases.

To further argue for the retention of the NEA, according to research by Americans for the Arts, nonprofit arts organizations and their audiences generate $166.2 billion in economic activity every year, support 5.7 million jobs, and return nearly $30 billion in government revenue every year. Every $1 billion in spending by nonprofit arts and culture organizations and their audiences results in almost 70,000 full time jobs. Without the NEA, many of these small nonprofit arts organizations would be unable to stimulate the economy and create jobs. Much debate is currently going on about the future of the NEA. Its budget is $160 million a year, this means that the government spends an outstanding .51 cents per capita (I hope you can sense my sarcasm here)!

Priority for the arts in America? What priority?

Multicultural Threads of Boston

Mission Hill Mural

Since its settlement around 1629-30, immigration has dramatically altered Boston’s built environment, shaping the city as we know it today. The impact of immigration on the development of architecture in the metropolitan region of Boston is reflected in the city’s distinct architectural fabric and planning patterns. The influence of immigration from abroad, migrations within the United States and the migration of populations across Boston from the initial settlement until the 21st century is not only reflected in the city’s unique development patterns, but also in the character of many of Boston’s neighborhoods. The aspirations and realities of the immigrants that arrived from abroad as well as those that migrated from other parts of the city and country are traced in the architecture of Boston.

Like the Irish who have migrated from one neighborhood of Boston to another, the African American Diaspora migrated from the Southern part of the country to the North where they settled on the north slope of Beacon Hill. The African American community succumbed to the economic pressures of Beacon Hill and relocated to the neighborhoods of Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan, but not without leaving their imprint on the Hill. The African Meeting House which was built by free African American artists and the Abiel Smith School serve as testament to the powerful impact of cultures and immigration on the architecture of Metropolitan Boston.

Islamic Society and Cultural Center of Boston

The 20th century witnessed the fall and rise of neighborhoods like Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan with the influx of immigration from other parts of Boston and the revitalization of Boston Main Streets. Although populated predominantly by African Americans, these areas of Boston have become increasingly culturally and economically diverse. As recent as 2008, the Islamic Society and Cultural Center of Boston opened its doors in Roxbury, standing as a symbol of Boston’s ethnically-diverse communities.

The Basilica of our Lady of Perpetual Help (Mission Church)

Another example of an immigrant group who left their mark on Boston’s architectural heritage are the Germans who settled on Mission Hill in Roxbury.  Mission Hill gets it names from the architectural gem that sits on top of one of the hills, the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. The church stands a testament of the impact of immigration in Boston.

Designed by two New York architects, William Schickel and Isaac Ditmars, “Mission Church” as it is commonly known, was built by the Redemptorist Fathers who were of a German Catholic order in 1874-1878. It is a handsome Romanesque Revival structure with Gothic elements on its exterior. The church is constructed of Roxbury Puddingstone, the official state rock of Massachusetts. Its interior is grand yet elegantly restrained, surrounding its users with a golden shimmer radiating from the octagonal cupola and the numerous stained glass windows.  

Mission Church - View looking West, Octagonal Lantern

Mission Church has been ‘rediscovered’ with the recent passing of Massachusetts’ Senator Edward M. Kennedy. On a tour of the church, sponsored by Discover Roxbury, a local non-profit organization, I learned that people have flocked from all over the country to experience its architectural grandeur and beauty.

Boston’s patterns of immigration have impacted the development of architecture and planning to the extent of evoking the aspirations and realities of those who have settled in the city and its metropolitan region. Neighborhoods like the South End and Jamaica Plain have witnessed an influx of new Americans coming from the Caribbean; in particular Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. These New Bostonians have already left their mark on the city’s built environment, most notably in Villa Victoria, a section of the South End whose architecture is a coherent compromise between American Modernism and Puerto Rican Vernacular.

A Building So Majestic…

Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center

2008, Dr. Sami Angawi; Steffian Bradley Architects; Sasaki Associates. 100 Malcolm X Boulevard, Roxbury

The Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center

The Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center

An iconic architectural landmark in Boston since its inception, the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center (ISBCC) incorporates traditional Boston architecture while adhering to the symbolism and traditions of Islamic design. Designed by a team of architects led by Dr. Sami Angawi, a former fellow of the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University and founder of the AMAR Center for International Architecture in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the ISBCC in Roxbury at a cost of $15.6 million and 15 years later remains an unfinished work.

Located in Roxbury, Boston’s largest predominantly Black neighborhood, the ISBCC is characterized by its massive proportions, towering over the campus of the adjacent Roxbury Community College and Roxbury Crossing T-Station. Its multi-cubic pyramid like composition, with the minaret at its western end and a dome to its east, visually and symbolically convey the journey every Muslim ideally goes on at least once in their lifetime to Mecca. Constructed of brick and sandstone, the mosque blends comfortably into its surroundings. A belt course borrowed from surrounding buildings emphasizes the mosque’s horizontality, while the minaret reaches for the heavens and makes a direct connection with the towers of The Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help (Mission Church) which is seen at a distance from the mosque. The belt course, the intrados and the abutment of its pointed arches were meant to be adorned with colorful mosaic work and calligraphic inscriptions from the Koran; however, due to budgetary and legal constraints these details remain unfinished.

Considered one of the most controversial new buildings in Boston within the last 10 years, the officials in charge of building the ISBCC have been accused of sympathizing with Islamic extremists groups as well as obtaining funds from Al Qaida for its construction. In addition, the land which was valued at $401,187 was purchased from the Boston Redevelopment Authority for $175,000 with the requirements that ISBCC would establish a library accessible to the public and maintain two parks surrounding the Center. The sale of the land was a highly debated issue among several groups, and some community residents opposed the low price tag for the purpose of building a mosque. The controversies that surround the ISBCC have obscured the positive impact that the Center has brought to the community. It has revitalized a corner of Roxbury once in dire need of economic and cultural prosperity.

View looking east

View looking east

As it stands, the center can accommodate up to 5,000 users at one time and in addition to the library, it includes conference and office spaces, underground parking for 100 automobiles and facilities for washing and preparing the deceased for burial. What remains to be built is a school with 17 additional classrooms. The ISBCC has not only become an iconic building in the city, but also a symbol of Boston’s ethnically-diverse communities, a building so majestic that once completed will be considered the pride of Boston and New England.