NEW EWR

By Melisa Gerecci

A stunning selection of contemporary art lives now at Newark Airport. Sculptures, murals, and photographs by living artists opened this year in Terminal A. No airfare required—plenty of work is publicly accessible, before ticketed passengers pass through security.

Two permanent works and nearly thirty rotating works are installed currently. The permanent, site-specific commissions are big: Karyn Olivier’s Approach consists of two, double-sided sculptures with photographs of Newark’s city and landscapes, while Layqa Nuna Yawar’s Between the Future Past is a multi-wall mural depicting people, plants, and animals from today and history.

Between the Future Past wraps around corners and jumps across walkways, becoming architectural in scope. Approach consists of concentric circles that dangle from the ceiling, spanning the departures, arrivals, and concourse floors. Similarly, it invites study by examining it from all three floors and riding the elevator.

Standing beneath Approach, I felt small yet omniscient: for a few minutes I could see tree tops, tarmacs, roofs and roadways, all ordinarily out of range of the human eye. One series featured photographs taken at night, while the other focused on day. I rode the elevator a floor, where, looking down, the images showed a skyward view. “I wanted to echo the temporary disorientation that travel can cause as we move through various time zones, arriving in different places. I was interested in the potential for optical, perceptual and experiential shifts,” Olivier says. Mirrors on the ceiling brought me back into view of myself, while letting me observe other people, upside down, moving around the baggage claim. “I am interested in the mirror’s capacity to both reflect and invert,” Olivier says. “The mirror in a sense, returns the sky images to the ‘sky.’ But it also inverts all of the activities that are happening in the terminal and its architecture.” I looked up at images of heavy shipping crates, trucks, and buildings, now floating above me. And I saw people all around me in the airport, now greeting friends or pulling their luggage across the ceiling.

Approaching the sculptures, the aluminum and stainless steel rings align, creating a tight spiral of concentric circles that unify the natural and built worlds. “I wanted to create an elastic sculpture that appears to conflate, and distort, contact, expand and compress,” Olivier explains. I think of how my guts feel when I’m in a plane taking off or landing, and I reflect on how the speed of air travel distorts the distance between places, allowing us to be in the air and on the ground within minutes and rapidly moving us between regions, often faster than our minds or bodies are prepared for change.

In a public talk at Cooper Union, Olivier described how she needed to “center the edge” while photographing sites around Newark. The images would be viewed on a sliver of a circle, not a full circle or a square screen, and so Olivier focused her camera’s eye accordingly. Olivier’s art honors Newark, a place sometimes mistaken as “outside” importance. “My work seeks to uncover and spotlight what is often right in front of us: I attempt to make the familiar new, shaped by each viewer[]…” she says. Look around for yourself, Approach suggests. What do you see?

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Between the Future Past also addresses visibility and perspective, this time using the language of painting and portraiture to depict the experience of migration and work. I studied the mural from several directions: riding escalators toward the gates, on the second-floor walkway toward airport administrative offices, and from ground-floor seating area.

Migrants from different time periods and traveling from different origins converge here. In a  sweeping mural of nearly a hundred individuals, Mathyias “Laughing Wolf” Ellis, a Nannticoke-Lenni-Lenape boy, appears four times: he dances across the state, standing on detailed renderings of the New Jersey Turnpike, the Snake Hill rock formation in Secaucus, Cape May, and Delaware, New Jersey. As viewers, we too participate in the mural as we deplane flights or greet travelers, some of us for a visit, others less certain of when or how they can return to where they came from. “Welcome to the homelands of the Lenape,” the mural announces, in Lenape.

Figures repeat and evolve throughout the mural. Certain elements are in black-and-white grayscale, others are saturated with color. The mural centers historically marginalized individuals and cultures. “I personally see myself as an amplifier of narratives, as a person [who] gets to apply a set of skills in order to bring messages forward,” LNY says. He prioritizes the lived experience of people, his portraits honor overlooked achievements and respect the beauty found in the global majority, well represented in Newark culture. In doing so, these portraits underline the nobility of the everyday. They also hint at the power and elegance of being alive in the world. LNY’s vision suits his approach to art-making: “My authorship is shared and open in order to reflect the potential openness of public space and the civic commons.” 

There’s a comfortable authority coming from the people in this work. Beyond being art in a public setting, this work is made collaboratively with the people it is of and for. During LNY’s first tours of the airport, he introduced himself to potential models or collaborators. LNY talked with people about their work and, with their permission, photographed people at work, representing themselves as they normally would. For some, the process continued to a follow-up interview and full photoshoot with photographers Leslie Cabrera and Chrystofer Davis. People showed up as they wanted to be depicted. They then played with props and fabrics as well as found different poses and ideas for photographs. “This is all part of the socially engaged process, where we invite the models to also author the ideas that will become part of the final mural. For example, we found out that one of the models used to be a dancer so that led to very active poses,” LNY said. One striking feature about this work is its fidelity to the lived reality of its subject matter: the people look like people, they move like people, and they look back at us, the viewers, as real people might.  

LNY discards political boundaries, historical and present. Interspersed among the stars, for example, are small symbols colored white, Lenape signatures from the “sale” of Newark. He weaves together symbols and moments “from New Jersey” and “of New York,” prioritizing instead a shared experience of work and movement. He also collapses the division between natural and manmade: Kim O’Neal, an airport employee, wears deer antlers, for example, while the hair of Yeimy Gamez Castillo, a Newark-based poet and community organizer, is crowned with bird’s wings. Airport electrician Enrique Outeiral appears twice, once cupping his hands in an offering, another time with the tools of his work intertwined with roses. He too finds himself here right now, but that physical circumstance does not necessarily determine his future or affect his past. Port Authority mechanic Nathaniel Quaye holds in his hands Kenney Street Hospital, the first Black medical center in Newark. Visitors familiar with New Jersey and its bus stops will spy the familiar tri-color bus stop sign.

Reality is enhanced by color: see the poppy red outlines of certain figures and plants against the background. Look at the chunks and swipes used to build the bird wings framing Yeimy’s face:

Between the Future Past rejects time as linear or location as trajectory-based. Instead, time and location are dynamic—much as we experienced in Approach. As a result, both artworks invite us to reconsider “where” we are and “when” we got there—and, thus, our relationship to place. By expanding the idea of place beyond political boundaries to include the natural world, history, and multiple perspectives, the works expand the possibility of belonging and reject a single viewpoint or experience as dominant. The title, “Between the Future Past” comes from a song by Bomba Estéreo and Leonel Garcia that talks about sitting at the edge of time and darkness next to a mountain and finding yourself between the past and the future—“a meditative moment,” says LNY. “The now.”

I asked the artists what they might change in their works. Olivier would place her sculptures after passengers deal with security, an often stressful experience that usually leads to restless passengers waiting for their departures in various shops. This location would offer passengers a chance to contemplate and engage the work instead of as they are rushing in to catch a flight or trying to grab their luggage and get home. “Everything!” adds LNY. “I only stop working because of deadlines but the designs keep changing and ideas keep evolving the longer I have to work on something. At that point I just become ok with letting the work be, letting go and allowing it to exist as a moment in time.” Specifically, he would have included author James Baldwin, musician Q Lazzarus, and Juan González—journalist, author, and an original Young Lords party member.

I also asked about creating future work at other portals.  As an artist whose work “live[s] in the context of migration entry points,” LNY is intrigued by unsanctioned entry points: “[f]or example, making artwork in the Sonoran desert or Atlantic ocean in order to speak about the inaccessibility, danger and risk people take to migrate. Creating monuments in isolated places for people that are invisible to the state. That would be very interesting.”  

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Take the Go Bus 28 from downtown Newark to the airport. Consider visiting when you don’t have a flight—and invite anyone you know travelling through EWR to check it out. When you spend time with work by LNY or Olivier, you connect with their creations in Philadelphia, Houston, Quito, and Dakar. Interacting directly with art–seeing it, questioning it, and talking with others about what you observed or thought–makes the work. Art is rarely complete when it leaves the sketchpad, studio, or even at installation. It must be experienced to exist.

Melisa Gerecci is an artist and illustrator. Her work can be seen at megerecci.com.

All photographs by Melisa Gerecci.