‘She Persists’ gallery explores female artists’ impact on New York City history

Chloe Choi, Staff Writer

New York City’s history has been decided inside the canary walls of Gracie Mansion, as it has been home to the city’s past mayors, as well as current mayor Bill de Blasio, since 1943. However, a different history is currently chronicled through art at the Upper East Side landmark: the story of New York’s women.

Open to the public most Mondays since early January, ‘She Persists’ is a gallery that features a collection of art by more than 40 female artists from the past century, all of whom have a strong relationship with the city.

The interior of Gracie Mansion resembles a lavish 1900’s home; antique wooden furniture fills the space, a polished piano sits in the corner of one room, and an ornate hutch holding extravagant china stands in another. Various shades of blue, yellow, and floral print wallpaper adorn the walls, and rusted, golden mirrors and crystal chandeliers enhance the luxury and splendor of the space.

The atmosphere inside the gallery is tranquil; the only sound heard is the tour guide’s voice and the faint footsteps of patrons moving from piece to piece. Perhaps in order to preserve the serenity of the space, staff ask patrons not to take photos or videos.

The works of renowned artists such as Theresa Bernstein, Faith Ringgold, and Betty Blayton-Taylor adorn the walls, all of which were selected by curator and art historian, Jessica Bell Brown.

The collection of art is diverse, whether it be in genre, composition, or underlying significance. The artwork ranges from modern to contemporary, and features photography, paintings, sculptures, and even a set of of handcrafted dolls.

In the minimalist painting ‘Yesterday,’ a compelling white zig-zag pattern lies on a black canvas. Despite the simplicity of the piece, the striking contrast between the two colors makes the work eye-catching. The 1987 painting was made by Carmen Herrera, who has lived in New York City since the mid-1950s. Herrera faced a lifetime of discrimination due to her identity as a Cuban immigrant and turned to modern art, where she discovered the geometric and abstract style that has since become popularized.

One of the exhibition’s most alluring pieces is a chromatic quilt pinned against the wall. Artist and activist Faith Ringgold’s ‘Tar Beach II’ features painted images which portray the lives of an African American family living in Harlem. Upon a rooftop overlooking the vibrant Manhattan skyline, the family engages in normal tasks: sleeping, eating, playing, and doing laundry.

Yet, to contrast such routine activities, Ringgold also depicted a young girl soaring over the George Washington Bridge in a euphoric dream of freedom. Along the border of the quilt, an intricate pattern of squares and triangles is sewn in the traditional style of the Kuba people of Central Africa, celebrating and exposing patrons to a culture that does not receive wide representation.

‘She Persists’ is the third installation of a series aimed at emphasizing the civic and cultural importance of Gracie Mansion in the greater New York history. Each exhibition tells a different story about New York City’s history throughout different time periods. In 2015, the first exhibition, ‘Windows on the City: Looking Out at Gracie’s New York’ featured artwork from the 18th century which gave a glimpse into the lives of the diverse communities living in the city during that time, including Irish immigrants, African American slaves and Freedmen, and Chinese traders. And in 2017, Gracie Mansion opened ‘New York 1942,’ which showcased art and historic artifacts which reflected the turbulence of city culture during the Second World War.

“She Persists has undeniably equally, if not greater popularity,” Farah Alvi, an art major at Baruch College who also visited the last art gallery, said. “Many of my friends loved the exhibition despite not all typically being big fans of art.”

The exhibit not only brings to light the talent of great female artists, but also the cultural impact their art has made. In addition to sharing their personal experiences and struggles, these artists use their works to expose the international community to new cultures –– all to further embrace diversity. “As a woman, it’s extremely encouraging and inspiring to see the struggles women had to face in the past, and how they’ve turned that suffering into something substantial and beautiful,” she added.

One of the more contemporary pieces is Jennifer Packer’s 2017 painting of a radiant flower bouquet, ‘Say My Name.’ The work is meant to honor Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old African American woman who was found dead in her jail cell following her arrest over a traffic violation. Bland’s death ignited controversy and added further to the national conversation regarding racial profiling and unjust treatment of African Americans by police. Packer believed that this case was not given the recognition and sympathy it deserved, so she chose to raise awareness with the best way she knew how –– through her art.

Despite its emphasis on femininity and the complex individual identities of the artists, ‘She Persists’ offers something for all New Yorkers, regardless of age, race or gender, patron Joel Montoya said. “I greatly appreciate that not each piece of work has a conspicuous meaning, so you’re truly able to create your own interpretation of the art.”