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Welcome to Gulu

Lehmann Maupin, May 15 – June 13, 2009

Rimbaud’s vision did not fail once he abandoned poetry and Paris. In Harar, he planned a railroad for North Africa, even surveying its route. Though this proposal fell on deaf ears, years later a railroad was built conforming to his farsighted observations. Dismissed as an ignoramus by armchair aesthetes back in Montparnasse (he wore a money belt stuffed with solid gold, reaped at the roughest trade, while they could barely handle his adventurous écrits) could we say today Brooklyn’s L train goes as far?

Artist's name unavailable, from the exhibition <i>Welcome to Gulu</i> curated by Ross Bleckner.
Artist's name unavailable, from the exhibition Welcome to Gulu curated by Ross Bleckner.

On May 12th, artist and AIDS activist Ross Bleckner was inducted as the United Nations Good Will Ambassador to Combat Human Trafficking at the U.N. opening of Welcome to Gulu, a show of beleaguered Ugandan children’s art that Bleckner curated. The male children represented had formerly been pressed into military service by The Lord’s Resistance Army; the females, forced into sexual slavery. Celebrities from Jeff Koons to Calvin Klein graced the Benefits Host Committee and proceeds will go, hopefully, towards prophylaxis, and the rehabilitation of child soldiers and/or victims of sexual trafficking. Do not mistake me; everything about this is laudable. Steep mountains of cash, high-profile spotlights, direct action, and the most conscientious scrutiny must be trained on these atrocities at international levels.

In Gulu, Bleckner taught art to 25 kids, aged 11 to 19, for “about 10 days.” I found the most searing appeal to be one child’s crudely lettered placard simply reading, “Don’t Forget Me.” Three days after the U.N. ceremony this exhibition moved to the back gallery at Lehmann Maupin.

The show consists of more than a hundred brightly colored, high-spirited paintings on paper, with photos and profiles of the artists. At Bleckner’s Moschino soirée, the chic Chelsea boutique, Sandra Bernhard dared, “There’s good stuff here—really good stuff,” meaning the clothes.

Madonna need not send a private plane to airlift her adopted daughter out from Africa when $2.00 on a Metro Card can shunt you quickly into the U.S. heart of darkness. Utterly anonymous artists have been teaching underprivileged “third world” children in states of utmost danger and neglect at the ass-end of Brooklyn’s train lines, fulltime daily for decades, with scant support or recognition, right here in our own New York City public schools. Cattle-car conditions; hotbox busted AC; wire mesh windows impenetrable to daylight which cannot be opened for ventilation (ever), in order to thwart the passing of weapons and contraband, thereby circumventing entryway X-ray/metal detectors, for minors. Gang fights spawned the shooting deaths of at least two kids that I know of during this past school year alone. One girl, raped, then is assigned to a school that includes her alleged rapists; teachers sustain permanent injuries ducking riots.

Students periodically piss on overheated hall radiators in response to the radical lack of working toilets due to overcrowding.

In 2001, one unknown European artist journeyed from Germany to far Brooklyn on a rescue mission of her own. After seven years teaching art daily in NYC’s brokeback schools at her initiative and personal expense (on a public high school teacher’s pay) R. Polenz finally brought five of her students from East New York to the very peak, seeing them through to an exhibition of their work last spring on the top floor of 7 World Trade Center with Young at Art, fostered in part by Publicolor, the New York City Schools, and gallerist Mary Boone. Though native to New York, none of these kids had ever been in a skyscraper before, or even in Manhattan. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Burundi deems the unassuming 98-pound artist and teacher, “a soldier at the front.” Of her students Polenz declares, “They are the invisible center of the democratic idea.” Despite working here fulltime for nearly a decade (on an H1B visa), and clearly making outsize social and artistic contributions while paying taxes, she has still not yet been able to get even a Green Card.

 Reportedly, the father of one child star in Academy Awards king Slumdog Millionaire had earlier considered selling his own daughter. Now, does anyone wanna buy an American kid in Brooklyn?


Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle

Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle is an American poet and art critic. He lives in Paris and New York City.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2009

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