Ben Eichert turned to digital art after surviving trauma, abuse, and an attempt to end his own life. His evocative work will be the focus of an exhibition in Energy Square and other exhibitions. Shaniqua Bowden will help lead a solution-oriented workshop that explores what Black farmers are doing and can do more to own and cultivate land and share resources. Bryant “Drew” Andrews will unveil an oil painting he commissioned to honor how people within a community such as Kingston, from pastors to people in food pantries, have stepped up in difficult times such as the Covid pandemic, guided others, and created a legacy.
These three individuals are among many whose talents and contributions are coming together to mark Black History Month Kingston (BHMK) with approximately 40 events, activities, and programs throughout February. The month-long event’s theme is music, art, and culture. While elements of each have been components in the preceding years, the sixth annual commemoration will center on art, music, and culture through a variety of exhibitions, films, and other presentations.
“We’ve never done that, create an art and music showcase,” says Frank Waters, co-founder and executive director of MyKingstonKids, which is partnering with another nonprofit organization, Harambee Kingston, to present Black History Month Kingston.
BHMK starts on Feb. 1 with a Breakfast Mixer in City Hall, a community networking gathering where Kingston Mayor Steve Noble will issue a proclamation for Black History Month Kingston.
In addition, in honor of Black History Month, the Ulster County Office Building at 244 Fair Street in Kingston will feature lighting in red, yellow, and green for the month of February.
On the afternoon of Feb. 4, from 1-4 p.m., the official Black History Month Kingston kickoff event will be held at the Kingston YMCA. It’s a family-oriented celebration with poetry and singing, a MyKingstonKids dance party, Ubaka Hill’s Drumsong Orchestra, children’s activities and vendors.
Since its inaugural year of 2018, BHMK has had more than 210 events throughout Kingston. “The past five years have been historic and have displayed the unified consciousness of the community of Kingston, New York,” a press release announcing Black History Month Kingston said. “The African-American contributions were highlighted along with strategies of growth, awareness, and celebration.”
Noting his own excitement about the month-long commemoration, Waters said, “What’s different is we’re always getting new people involved, new energy, new ideas, and new events.” The new offerings include the BHMK Community Family Dance at the YMCA Gym, on Feb. 25, and Local Black Authors Unveiled, at the Center for Creative Education, on Feb. 26, an afternoon event during which authors will read excerpts of their books.
BHMK has set up excellent ways to take advantage of all that the month-long event has to offer, making information available on local businesses, educational institutions, groups, and community activities and resources throughout the year. There is a 60-page full-color guide that one can download and share, plus a BHMK phone app. (Search your phone’s mobile app store for the free app. Find the guide and other info at the BHMK website: http://blackhistorymonthkingston.org/ or BHMK’s Facebook page.) The guide contains articles about the immense influence Black creators have had in the development and history of art, music, and culture.
BHMK will provide abundant opportunities to view art citywide, ranging from an exhibition already produced to those created and opening specifically for Black History Month. A large art exhibition first on view last fall, Kingston Revealed, is up from Feb. 1-28 in the City Hall Lobby (open during City Hall hours). The works of some 15 artists illuminate the varied and complex cultures within the Kingston community.
The weekend of Feb. 3-4 will see three exhibits of art and photography open. On Feb. 3, the photography exhibit Soul Reflections will open in the Deep Tanks Studio, at 410 East Chester Street. At the Lace Mill, 165 Cornell Street, the special BHMK exhibit will feature African-American artists, including works from MyKingstonKids’ Photography Now! program and photographer Barry Mayo. Also at this exhibit, the Center for Creative Education (CCE) will unveil an oil painting that CCE Executive Director Andrews commissioned, which he has entitled “The Visionaries: Leaving a Legacy of Hope.” Andrews commissioned the painting by artist Nestor Madalengoitia to honor those people he calls the leaders and heroes right within the community – nonprofit groups, people working the food pantries, the church pastors, and others. They led and inspired others during tough times like the Covid pandemic, which was “horrific and beautiful at the same time,” Andrews said. The painting, some 10 feet long, also marks his own journey from Brooklyn to Poughkeepsie to Kingston, with its images of bridges and people.
The third BHMK art event opening and reception during the first weekend of February is Pieces of B, a solo exhibit of art by Ben Eichert at the Energy Square Lobby, 20 Cedar Street. It will open on Feb. 4 and be on view through March 20.
Eichert found his artistic calling after a harrowing, painful life journey. He grew up in an abusive, dysfunctional, and adoptive household and was institutionalized from the ages of 13 through 18. Surviving an attempted suicide in 2014, Eichert felt a sense of wanting to make something of his life and enrolled in a Photoshop and photography class at SUNY Empire. The teacher encouraged experimentation, and as Eichert made varied digital art images, he found it a way to “show people how I was feeling,” bringing his inner world to the outer world. In his debut exhibit at the Lace Mill in 2020, Eichert sold 24 pieces, which was a humbling experience, he said.
Eichert’s artwork is also part of the Soul Reflections and Kingston Revealed exhibitions. His art has been integral to his journey in discovering and processing his complex identities and difficult journeys. Yet his evolution in his life and art has more recently provoked a sense that identity goes deeper, that it means “having to go back to the basics”, beyond labels of our humanity.
Beyond the art exhibits, the music, films, and cultural offerings are broad and diverse. On Feb. 16, a screening of The Interview will be shown at the UC Restorative Justice Center, 733 Broadway, followed by a panel discussion. The documentary examines the limitations and prejudices of the New York City parole system. Formerly incarcerated people talk about navigating the obstacle course of the parole system and trying to convince others they deserve the possibilities of a new life when the focus too often is on rehashing their past crimes. BHMK is teaming with the Woodstock Film Festival on Feb. 17 to screen The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks at the Ulster Performing Arts Center (UPAC). The film explores long-neglected aspects of the civil rights pioneer’s life such as her six decade-long efforts to fight inequality, her political philosophy, and the economic and personal hardships she endured with courage. The free screening will be followed by a Q&A with co-director Yoruba Richen.
An award-winning animated feature is on the schedule as well: Disney and Pixar’s Soul, on Feb. 22, at the Rondout Neighborhood Center. The character Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) is a middle-school music teacher who has always wanted to be a jazz musician. When a fall down a manhole lands the teacher in alternate realms, after many twists and turns, he ultimately figures out his soul’s purpose. The film won an Academy Award for best animated feature.
With the aim to provide historic, educational, and engaging activities, BHMK has maintained a strong emphasis on children through various programs that all ages can enjoy. This will be true again in 2023, with the Family Fun Fit Fest, an afternoon of fitness education on Feb. 19; the Rondout’s Carnival Family Night of games, food, prizes, and music on Feb. 24; and the BHMK Community Family Dance, with a DJ, dancing, and food on Feb. 25. “It’s understanding who children are, their connection and their place,” Waters said. “It’s important to acknowledge them, to inspire them, and also to watch them and learn from them.”
In that vein, the Center for Creative Education is producing a program at the CCE building on Cedar Street, The Black Experience, on the evening of Feb. 18 that will have singers, dancers, and other performers of all ages.
This connection of children to the community can truly be seen and felt in the fourth annual Sojourner Truth Life Walk, which takes place on Feb. 18 from 11am to 5pm Children take part as presenters at various stops as people walk together and learn about Sojourner Truth and her lifelong campaign for equal rights for Black people and women. The trek begins in Port Ewen, where she was an enslaved child, and proceeds to Kingston, as the participants hear about her escape to freedom and her legal fight for her son’s freedom at the Ulster County Courthouse. The walk culminates at the Old Dutch Church, where the Rev. Deborah Zuill will reenact, as she has in prior years, the “Ain’t I a Woman” speech that Truth delivered in 1851. An ensemble cast will join Zuill this year, according to Waters.
As the Sojourner Truth Life Walk shows, BHMK balances an awareness and memorialization of the past, celebration and sharing in the present, and preparation, guidance, and action for the future. Land in Black Hands, An Agricultural Feast and Celebration of Black Tenure, slated for Feb. 23 at the Good Work Institute, exemplifies this balance and is one of the economic and cultural empowerment programs during BHMK. It will focus on Black land tenure and economic innovations. This comes with the acknowledgement that Black farmers have sustained discrimination in agriculture historically and faced myriad forces such as discriminatory lending that spurred a decline in Black farming.
“We are going to talk a lot about solutions for what Black farmers are doing and can do – to create ways to own land, use financing, and have sharing of the land and resources,” said Shaniqua Bowden, who is Director of Cultural Engagement and Sustainable Living for the Kingston Land Trust. She heads the land trust’s Land in Black Hands initiative. The program will celebrate the people who are gaining a foothold in farming despite what can be obstacles and a cumbersome process. It will be an opportunity to assess gains and challenges – particularly since the pandemic began – and share future strategies and steps.
In Black History Month Kingston’s sixth year, those involved in its programs see some measure of progress in Kingston and the Hudson Valley. As CCE’s Andrews observes, “it is now acceptable to learn the history. What had been denied is now part of the conversation. It’s a chance to tell our stories and not have them ignored or deflected.”