Sugar Hill Museum

The Sugar Hill Museum, in the Sugar Hill neighborhood of Harlem, is full of interactive materials. Raw wood sticks with frayed bark in a horizontal built-in shelf, some just lying there, others in a natural fiber basket. They seem like props for kids to generate stories and I wondered how it worked. Same with the living room-sized chess board on the floor with toddler-sized chess pieces in the central open gallery space. Keeping track of any chess game would result in a story structure, since it has relationship, motivation, strategy to pull that off with devastating losses and smug victories, and every emotion in the book.

There weren’t kids using the space when I was there, but The Sugar Hill Museum is a place for groups of kids to move, play, roll up their sleeves and activate their voices. I arrived at the front door wet from a misty rain and my own sweat. The eye liner from my eyes had drooped down to below my eyes, like a 1980s football quarterback, but I didn’t know this yet. The guy at the front was very friendly and we talked about the woes of gentrification and lots of other choir preaching tidbits. They weren’t usually open on Wednesday, so the galleries were pretty empty. It was just me an a security guard and I had to be let in to one of the galleries that was still locked. That’s how dead it was. But I could hear their screams and running feet. That’s how lucky I felt to be avoiding noisy kid mobs.

You enter the museum by walking down blonde wood stairs that lead to a central gallery, a high-ceilinged, open, versatile space, with that barn-sized chess game in the middle. To the right of the entrance, built-in risers offer audience seating in seven giant wood stairs. A show of mural-sized pieces designed by two of the curatorial staff cover the walls. The graphic design prints showcase blown-up historical photos of Sugar Hill residents in action, connecting and making things together. Each photo mirrors itself to create a kaleidoscope look, that gives the impression that people who share their stories accordion their worlds outward to supply the rest of the neighborhood with energy to grow together from within.

This central gallery leads to two main galleries, and on the opposite side is a sloping corridor. One wall of the corridor is those sticks are that I was talking about. The other side of the corridor is a glass facade that opens into separate studio labs for kids and one artist-in-residence studio, which is bursting with flowing black ink on different white surfaces, from drawings on crumpled papers to a flat drawing of of a kid slumped over a swing, belly-down, like a rag on a kitchen sink spigot, you know how you used to do. The kids studios are full of inviting stations made for kids to tell their story in their own way, like if NPR’s recording studios were actual playgrounds. The stations seem to beckon the children, “Come hither and try to break me.”

There are two different shows in the main galleries. One is a room dedicated to Ana Mendieta’s projects with children. It was just the security guard and me, trying to be polite and friendly one another. I am a fan of Ana Mendieta, a Cuban American performance artist whose life was tragically cut short, allegedly murdered by her husband, allegedly also an artist. But this is about Ana Mendieta’s art and the way that she worked with children in a way that avoided leading questions and gave them the keys to the creative car. On the left side, a black and white wide-shot video she took of a class-size group of elementary school students playing together, with a full-size parachute, you know the game. Along the right and back walls, hung low to ground, kid-height, are photos of Mendieta with an abundance of facial hair glued to her face to create a Mario/Luigi-style mustache. In the back left corner is a listening nook, with a stool, two speakers and thoughtful and joyous kids voices talking about what they believe a soul to be in terms of time. The voices rev up then slow down like a car changing gears unexpectedly.

The museum’s description on the wall of the Ana Mendieta show says: “In this exhibition children are encouraged to reflect on notions of power and freedom through verbal and physical exploration.” This is the repeated theme throughout the museum and it got me thinking about how exploring thoughts and critical expression through physical activity, thinking in your body, and in a shared space, may be the best and only way to “reflect on notions of power and freedom”.

Throughout the museum, the idea of producing a story isn’t confronted directly. Kids are courted into choosing to invent stories by accident, as a by-product of play. The show that is up in the other space takes the taboo of forcing kids to write, learn and produce, and instead of avoiding it, this show amplifies the tension to a game based on a new folkloric character. The Bibliobandido shows up in town once a month and extracts stories from the children. He’s like the Tooth Fairy, but with a spooky, mysterious, menacing, even threatening quality.

The Bibliobandido was co-created in a town in Honduras that artist, Marisa Jahn, was asked to help design a creative program to help increase child literacy. Before you go in, you take a battery-operated candle and you watch a video with kids from Honduras who have to contend with the Bibliobandido. They tell the stories that they have given to the Bibliobandido, whose gaunt, stylish roll, loping in on a horse, wearing a hat that covers their eyes and a poncho that covers their body. The Bibliobandido can be a woman one month, a man or a gender-fluid person the next.

The room is painted from floor to ceiling. Kids can write their own stories to save their lives on a short, kid-size table in the center of the room. When you leave the room, you tell your story through a hole in the wall, then hand over your candle.

“Time passing and change are undeniable aspects of the world around us…Often artistic creation results in the production of art objects. However, when a concern for time is primary, an experience not an object may result.” -Ana Mendieta

This Ana Mendieta quote, included on the wall of the show, speaks to how playing doesn’t always yield a physical object, other than the experience itself. And got me to thinking about the difference between creating work to be consumed versus the act of creative expression. Writing a script versus the moment of performing it. Having a gorgeous latte without sharing it on Instagram. Reminds me of doing “devised work”, a physical theater piece that is created collaboratively, “on its feet” rather than written.

The Sugar Hill Museum facilitates play that doesn’t worry about yielding an object, such as a good story. I know how hard it can be to tell a story, especially when I want it to be good, or if I’m worried if people will like it, or if I feel like I don’t want to because I only want to tell stories on accident as a result of being with people, goofing off having fun. I love to generate new work, but the thing I fear is making it make sense with a clear statement, sharing it in the world and then being ridiculed. But if it’s do or die, as in the beautiful Bibliobandido will terrorize my family unless I speak a story through a make-believe conduit in some dry wall, then I will get the shit done.

“Be intent on action,
not on the fruits of action;
avoid attraction to the fruits
and attachment to inaction!”
— Bhagavad Gita, Translated by Barbara Stoler Miller