If you’re looking for a good time, look no further: New York’s hottest gallery is a $40 million art installation sprawling across three buildings atop a former plumbing supply business in East Williamsburg.
The art gallery at the center of the new buildings is set to open to the public on Saturday and is the home of the Amant Foundation – a nonprofit that’s run by art collector Lonti Ebers. Its first show gathers some recent work by Grada Kilomba, a Portuguese artist of West African descent who is based in Berlin.
“It’s quite gentrified already and in a positive way. I don’t see gentrification only as a negative thing,” Ruth Estévez told me on the subject of the building’s place in the neighborhood, while sitting in front of the tall screens of Kilomba’s “A World of Illusions,” a six-channel video installation that shows Kilomba reenacting various Greek myths. Ebers hired Estévez to oversee art direction at the foundation – “with total freedom,” as she told the New York Times in May.
While it can be hard to say with any specificity who owns what in the world of real estate, both the foundation and the company that own the 932 Grand St. location are registered to the same Delaware address as the real estate management arm of Canadian real estate billionaire Bruce Flatt, Ebers’ husband. Flatt’s company, Brookfield Property Partners, is also behind Greenpoint Landing, a collection of condos the company labels a “case study” in “Brooklyn revitalization.”
After some thought, Estévez defines good gentrification as a matter of finding ways to “improve places.”
“A World of Illusions” is one of Kilomba’s more well-traveled works and made its debut at the São Paulo Art Biennial in 2016. In the work, then, Kilomba reenacted the story of Narcissus and Echo and, since then, Kilomba has also shot versions of Oedipus and Antigone. “She takes on the role of a contemporary Griot, a storyteller who lets the classic tales speak directly on the current political issues,” a small art magazine opined when the show had made its way, in 2019, to the Bildmuseet in Sweden.
While Kilomba is pretty well known abroad – “In Brazil, she is like a diva, everybody knows her,” Estévez says – the show in Bushwick hopes to make her a big name in United States too. According to the New York Times story, Ebers has invested a good deal in Kilomba’s work, but has opted not to show pieces from her own collection, which is allegedly very vast, at her gallery.
Instead, Estévez’s show has opted to put together a sampler of Kilomba’s work. Though much of it has been shown elsewhere in the world, the Amant points out that this is Kilomba’s debut solo show in the United States.
In addition to the video installation, there is a room filled with enormous stills from the video, which recede into the paper-white walls. Another room is taken up by “The Desire Project” (2016) a video installation in which questions like “Who can speak?” and “What can we speak about?” are beamed onto pitch black walls.
The most tactile of Kilomba’s pieces sits at the center of the galley: “Table of Goods,” (2017) a gigantic pile of dirt colorfully dotted with small pools of sugar, coffee beans and cocoa. “These three pleasures of the West [were] the horrors of the rest, because the entire project of modernity was based at the cost of enslaved Africans,” Kilomba said in an interview about the work back in 2018.
(Citing the ongoing pandemic’s travel restrictions, Estévez says that Kilomba won’t be attending the show until September, which is when the second half of the Amant will also open: a garden and performance space across the street, as well as a cafe opposite a small bookstore that will open this weekend.)
The Amant didn’t come cheap. Ebers told Bloomberg in May that, all told, the building cost about “over $35 million, probably closer to $40 million,” but it was a chance for her to do something new, on top of land she heard was previously a meeting place for the mafia. She continued, “My husband, who’s in the real estate business, puts up a 40-story building, but every floor is the same; here, a lot had to be invented.”
“All the funding is coming out from the same source,” Estévez said, when asked about what the Amant’s financial plans were. “We are not worried about numbers – in terms of needing to have, like, two thousand people coming in every month.”
After Kilomba, the Amant will be showing the work of Manthia Diawara, a Malian director who will screen “a film installation” for a few months that will put him “in imagined dialogues with artists and thinkers on Africa and the African Diaspora.”
The Amant’s building is the work of Florian Idenburg, a Dutch architect who had been involved in designing the New Museum’s new location in 2007. When construction of the building was first announced back in 2015, early renderings suggested that Idenburg had planned on fashioning a simultaneously boxy yet curved space between the two former warehouses.
But credit must be given where credit is due. About four years overdue from its projected opening date in 2017 – and still well under construction less than a week before its opening – it is, nonetheless, a strangely gorgeous hill of concrete and whose ornate touches give it the feeling of an incredibly elaborate bank .
“We chose very simple, tough materials like brick, concrete and steel, but applied in a more delicate manner,” Idenburg told a trade magazine in May. “Together, the environment they create will hopefully trigger curiosity.
The Amant has a sharp contrast to the neighborhood surrounding it. “With the design of the Amant campus, we introduce a more humane grain and texture to the industrial neighborhood,” Idenburg’s firm said in a press release, which describes the building as “an oasis for creative thought and production.”
“It’s a big debate about whether this is Williamsburg or Bushwick,” Estévez says about her takeaways from the neighborhood so far. “One of the main reasons why we decided to come here, to this area, is that you have a lot of artists and studios [here] and a lot of artists in random spaces, but there are not a lot of institutions like the Amant.”
Despite extensive coverage of the Amant, many of the neighborhood’s galleries seemed not be aware that a new institution was coming to their neighborhood.
“They are literally the epitome of gentrification,” a local activist who goes by the name of Jazo Brooklyn told me, after she had looked up the Amant. Jazo runs a group called Educated Little Monsters, which had taken over the nonprofit that used to run Bushwick Open Studios over the past decade. She has been running the annual Bushwick festival since 2019 and says it plans to return this year in September.
Jazo added that she took issue with how little the Amant has done to reach out to artists in the neighborhood, labeling its approach to the neighborhood “Christopher Columbus syndrome.”
“These guys have a lot of power and a lot of access to build out a space like this. We need to have more people from the community feel like they have a sense of relevance to these spaces,” she says.
The Amant Foundation is located at 315 Maujer Street and opens to the public on Saturday, July 10th and Grada Kilomba’s show will run there, on Thursdays through Sundays, until the end of October.
Top image via the Amant Foundation.
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