Newark Arts After the Pandemic: A Look at Project for Empty Space

By Sharon Adarlo

Some of the biggest things I missed during the pandemic were the ability to go to art shows, attend a music concert and basically be part of the arts and cultural community in Newark and the larger New York City metropolitan area. At the start of lockdowns, New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) shuttered its doors and put many people on furlough, adding to the misery of seeing the lights go out on Broadway. Legions of art venues in and around New York City – with Newark as a vital, critical node in that chain – were closed. As the pandemic stretched into the summer of 2020, I wondered in despair if this was our new normal. 

But this spring and summer have brought forth developments that point to a renewal of the arts and cultural scene in Newark and beyond. As the city shook off the many traumas of the pandemic (along with the chill of what seemed to be an interminable winter), I attended my first art show in April; as soon as the Newark Museum of Art reopened, I graced the institution’s galleries; with schedules for live shows suddenly getting posted online, my husband and I eagerly made plans to attend summer concerts.

During the pandemic, I was especially impressed by the fortitude and resourcefulness of Rebecca Jampol and Jasmine Wahi, the co-directors behind Newark-based Project for Empty Space (PES), a non-profit arts organization that holds exhibits and offers special opportunities and studio space for the growing arts community in Newark and the greater metro area. During the pandemic, they continued to hold programming, such as their established Feminist Incubator residency and their rotating artist in residence. 

Last year, the artist in residence was Kambui Olujimi, a multi-disciplinarian artist, who created evocative watercolors of his mentor, Catherine Arline. (The show can be seen here.) 

Besides their regular programing, PES also helped launched with Express Newark and local practitioners an art database called Newark Artists. PES also launched the Newark Artist Accelerator with The Andy Warhol Foundation and its Visual Arts Regional Regranting Program. The accelerator distributed 45 grants to artists in the city to lessen the economic impact of the pandemic. On top of that, PES moved from the Gateway Center to their new location on Broad Street at the start of 2020.

This year, the Feminist Incubator culminated in a stirring show called, “What We Become When We Are Unbound,” which I attended in April and which gave me hope that we are really going to see the light at the end of the tunnel. (The show can be seen virtually here.) The group exhibition featured works by Jillian M Rock, Mimi Bai, Sarah K. Khan, Spandita Malik and Priscilla Dobler Dzul. Ranging from beautiful tapestry to prints, the show pivoted on the powerful notion of expression unbound by the yoke of “White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy.” I was especially struck by the works of Priscilla Dobler Dzul and Sarah K. Khan. Dzul created a colorful, embroidered tapestry infused with fragrant essential oils (cacao, coffee, vanilla and lime) and two chairs of wood, leather and thread. The chairs were inspired by 18th century Campeche chairs from Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. One could sit on the chairs and listen to a Mayan healer’s narration in English and Spanish. Together with the chairs, the voices and the vibrant tapestry of forest animals, this installation evoked the tangled layers of memories and mythology in Mayan and Hispanic culture.

Photo by Sharon Adarlo

As for Khan, she made these beautiful layered prints of women doing subversive activities, from horseback riding, gunslinging to holding blow torches, on backgrounds of gold leaf and a variety of bold patterns. They were images inspired by the Book of Delights, a richly illustrated volume composed of miniatures and script from the 15th century Indian Sultanate region.

Photo by Sharon Adarlo

I had a chance to talk to Khan at the show after her short artist intro on her work shortly after arriving at the show from an artist residency in Maine:

Sarah K. Khan: I was at an artist residency in Maine for the month of April, but it was important for me to show up here. I wouldn’t have done the residency during the Project for Empty Space Feminist Incubator show but everything just got delayed. And so I made plans, because I didn’t want to miss this event because residences are so important in terms of building community and building relationships. The work is important and what you make is important, but what’s also important are the relationships you build. And that’s why the Feminist Incubator is so vital.

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At the April show of their Feminist Incubator Residency, I talked to Jampol and Wahi to get their thoughts on the pandemic and how they navigated this challenging time. What follows is an excerpt of our short conversation:

Rebecca Jampol: The transition from the Gateway Center into this building was really exciting because it’s a larger space. We were looking at that as a moment of expansion and we had a lot of big ideas and big dreams about a lot of public-facing programming because we were moving to this very centrally-located space. When Covid-19 happened, it was a challenge, but we’re problem solvers here. So we pivoted and started to think more about what we could do in a larger sense to still maintain community, which is really what this space is about. This community of studio artists. So, we built the Newark Artist database, an online platform where artists can build a micro website on the website, where they can talk about their practice and show a portfolio of work. There are also opportunities on the website such as listings of art spaces. And we do monthly webinars.

And then the second thing was we were selected by the Andy Warhol Foundation to distribute emergency artists grants. That was wonderful.

Jasmine Wahi: Logistically, the pandemic has poised some issues of course. We were not physically able to be in this space and organize an exhibit. Basically, we have had to do things remotely. A lot of the work that we have had to do has been coordinated online such as doing remote studio visits – that kind of thing. Luckily, we have technology and it’s definitely really helped us stay connected with artists. All things considered, once we figured out a way to navigate the challenges of the pandemic, it hasn’t been that bad, I think the greatest, the greatest challenge is really not being able to physically be in our community. 

We had to find ways to safely have people in the space. For the last exhibit and this show, we did 360s so people can virtually visit the gallery. 360 is basically a navigable 3D rendering made of the exhibition. We worked with Express Newark to have that done so they can basically film the entire exhibition and people can visit our website and click into the 360 and walk through the exhibition and see it. 

It’s very interactive. So, it’s not just photographs that you’re swiping through on a screen. You can have a pseudo visitor experience. 

Since the April show, PES has been busy with a donation drive for YCWA, the opening of works by Ron Norsworthy along with a rooftop mural, and a mural dedication by Colleen Gutwein O’Neil, among other numerous activities. More on Project for Empty Space can be found here.

For more from the author visit: www.sharonadarlo.com/

Featured image by Sharon Adarlo