Co-Curator Lisa D. Hayes, ESQ; Exhibiting Artist Melvin Van Peebles; Co-Curator Souleo
Co-Curator Lisa D. Hayes, ESQ; Exhibiting Artist Melvin Van Peebles; Co-Curator Souleo. (Photo: Shawn Smith)

At the recent opening of eMerge 2.0, an exhibition currently on view at the Strivers Garden Gallery in Harlem, the legendary filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles added yet another title to his impressive list of accomplishments — that of professional visual artist.

Van Peebles is the writer, producer, director and star (and he also composed the score!) of the seminal ’70s hit film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which ushered in a new era of movies based on inner city black life that came to be known as the “blaxploitation” period.

The 81-year-old film trailblazer is also a noted composer, author and musician.

An artist as an inspiration

In a sit-down interview with theGrio at the eMerge 2.0 opening reception, Van Peebles revealed that he has been a visual artist since he was child, but he is just now sharing this aspect of his creative side with the public, because, well — he feels like it.

“At my age, I just do what I want to do,” said the spry octogenarian. “Somebody asked me if I would start sharing my pieces, so I said ‘ok.’ I make things I like. If I share them and other people don’t like them, that’s fine, too, as long as I’m still eating for the rest of the week.”

Yet, Van Peebles is not a young and hungry artist, but instead someone with a respected name and years of experience. With no need to make a name for himself, by sharing his works he hopes to be an inspiration to people seeking to express themselves.

“I want people to look at me and say ‘I can do that,’” Van Peebles said. “If me sharing my work helps get the word out about other artists, or inspires someone to create something themselves, that’s great. I’m with that.”

eMerge 2.0: Exposure for new visions

Van Peebles exhibited a piece as part of the group show called Ex-Voto Monochrome (A Ghetto Mother’s Prayer), which is composed of a large square of sky blue-dyed concrete set askew, surrounded by a wooden frame and a pair of white wings.

The eMerge 2.0 exhibition also features 12 additional artists in the picturesque Strivers Garden Gallery space. The gallery wraps around a sun-dappled garden with seating and water fountains on the ground floor of a new, high rise condo building.

“It’s exciting to introduce everyone to the work of these talented, emerging artists,” Lisa Hayes, Esq., co-curator of the exhibition, told theGrio. “It’s good for the artists, the residents of Harlem and even more specifically, the residents of this building. This gallery space has become part of the high-end luxury appeal of this building.”

Hayes is also co-organizer of the Striver’s Row Circuit, an annual self-guided walking tour of Harlem’s art galleries and studios, which takes place this year on October 5 and 6.

The artists of eMerge 2.0

Among the artists featured in eMerge 2.0 is NBC editor Kimberly Mayhorn. Her piece entitled Angst for a Paradise Lost is a mixed media work of wood, iron, rope and religious texts. “My piece explores the way religion impacts and informs our lives. I’m very interested in that. But of course I want people to interpret it as they see fit,” said Mayhorn, who considers herself a late-comer as an artist as well, similar to Van Peebles.

Similar to her piece, many of the art works featured are made of found or repurposed objects. JaSon E. Auguste’s work, iAncientModernTunein, is a tree of vinyl records topped with an African mask and headphones.

David Hollier’s pen and ink piece Mandela renders the text of Nelson Mandela’s 1997 speech at the Oxford Center for Islamic studies in the shape of a drawing of the South African legend.

Riffing on art and history

Artist Andre Woolery used 23,850 colorful pushpins to create It’s All About the Benjamins, an over-sized 100 dollar bill featuring Benjamin Banneker instead of Benjamin Franklin and the phrase “United Slaves of America” instead of “United States of America.”

“We are very excited to once again present this platform for emerging artists to gain access to new audiences and greater opportunities,” said co-curator of the exhibition Souleo, who developed the showcase as part of his media firm, Souleo Enterprises, LLC. “With Melvin Van Peebles as this year’s keystone, we are honoring his spirit of reinvention, from the continual transformation of one’s life, to the re-purposing of everyday materials into cultural, political and social statements.”

The eMerge 2.0 exhibition is free and open to the public through November 7 at the Strivers Garden Gallery.

Follow Demetria Irwin on Twitter at @Love_Is_Dope and connect with her on Facebook.