Off Campus

Paired Pieces exhibition celebrates Black culture in memory of the 15th Ward

Exhibit celebrates Black culture, 15th Ward memories

The Community Library of DeWitt and Jamesville features artwork from eight Syracuse area artists and students.

“Untitled” by Brandan Meyer, part of the “Paired Pieces” art exhibition at the Wendy Scott Art Gallery in the Community Library of DeWitt and Jamesville.

Seven ceramic platters hang in the brightly lit Wendy Scott Art Gallery in the Public Library of DeWitt and Jamesville. Part of the “Paired Pieces” art exhibition, the white glazed platters are scrolled with ink scribbles and expressive lines. 

Those black scribbles represent a map of Syracuse to commemorate the historic 15th Ward, a once thriving Black and Jewish community. In the center of one platter, a thick yellow line travels through the streets. Artist Brandan Meyer, 21,  found inspiration for “Untitled” in Kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pieces. Kintsugi translates to “to join with gold.” Meyer repaired the crack to represent the lasting impact of Interstate I-81. 

Over the course of five weeks, eight local artists met with historical advisors to craft contemporary artwork for “Paired Pieces.” The featured artists include Kofi Antwi, Sahara Burgos,  Selaci Butoto, Jaleel Campbell, Charles DeShields, Brandan Meyer, Janiah Shadreem and Martikah Williams. 

The Black Artists Collective (BAC) provided the artists with three prompts: What was the impact of the decimation of the 15th Ward? How are you affected by the razing of the 15th Ward? What are your hopes for a reparative future in Syracuse?

In 1959,  construction began on I-81 as a part of the national highway and Urban Renewal development project. The viaduct construction eradicated the 15th Ward, displacing thousands. The city government labeled the 15th Ward a blighted area that needed cleaning up. Historians and former community members disagree. 

“The area which the city sort of painted as this ‘slum’ or ‘ghetto’ was really this community of people that had businesses, community organizations, churches, barbershops, everything that you could think of in this concentrated area,” said historical advisor Caroline Charles.  

After years of protests and picketing, authorities forced the community members who owned businesses in the 15th Ward to close shop. Bulldozers demolished most of the buildings to clear the way for I-81. “When the highway was built, it really decimated this entire area of Syracuse,” Charles said. 

Several pieces featured in “Paired Pieces” recognize Black-owned businesses and photographers of the historic 15th Ward. Selaci Butoto, a junior at Nottingham High School, based his painting “The Endless Light” on an image of four men outside of the former Record City Radio. According to the Onondaga Historical Association, World War II veteran David Wilkens owned the store and the barbershop next door. He was the first African American to own a record store in the city. His wife, photographer Marjory Wilkins, captured the image outside the shop in the 1950s. 

“Paired Pieces” provides both an avenue for artistic expression and a mentorship experience. The exhibition features four local professional artists who mentored four student artists. “Making an art show inter-generational with mentors and mentees greatly increases the voices being heard, as well as those being spoken to,” said Sara Jo Brandt, community outreach coordinator for the library.

The art exhibition also features literary work, including poetry by Kofi Antwi. In his long poem, “The South Side of Syracuse, NY,” Antwi describes the injustice of the 15th Ward’s fate. “The roads, buildings, homes belonged to us. A community uprooted like a dove’s wings perch midnight,” he writes.  

Although discriminatory housing policies concentrated minorities in the old 15th Ward, the neighborhood overflowed with culture and what the artists described as “Black Love.” 

 John Williams, a writer of the second Harlem Renaissance, wrote, “For me, the Ward was home and the rest of Syracuse radiated outward from it. It was a city within a city and at dusk the year around, you could see men of all sizes, shapes and colors returning to it from their jobs, such as they were.” Today, people who never saw that city within a city can read William’s words forged in the Syracuse Writers public art installation near Forman Park where the 15th Ward once stood. 

“Untitled” mixed-media painting by Charles DeShields on display for the “Paired Pieces” art exhibition at the Wendy Scott Art Gallery in the Community Library of DeWitt and Jamesville.

“Artists have always been at the forefront of social movements,” Meyer said. “It has always been artists who express some form of discomfort, while also revealing the reality of society.” 

According to Meyer, the city owes justice to those who once resided in the 15th Ward and succeeding generations. In late July, the New York State Department of Transportation approved the controversial I-81 Viaduct project. The project will bring down I-81 to create “an improved corridor through the city.”

“There are a lot of promises on the table,” BAC co-founder Jaleel Campbell said. “We have to be aware and hope the same thing that happened back in the 60s doesn’t happen again. We have to remember this history.”

The “Paired Pieces” art exhibition will remain on view in the Community Library of DeWitt and Jamesville until August 30. The exhibition is free and open to the public.