With the uptick in activity at the August Wilson Center, it’s worthwhile to think about what is happening in our rapidly gentrifying city. Rising rents are pushing African Americans out of certain neighborhoods. And while a city’s “livability” reflects in part its cultural life, that culture is most thrilling when it is diverse.
Wasn’t it the Hill District that inspired Wilson’s own Pittsburgh Cycle of plays, and Pittsburgh’s historically black neighborhoods that inspired noted choreographer Kyle Abraham’s Pavement? Our contemporary urban environments are being transformed by developers and residents who want “safe,” “clean” and, quite frankly, bland and generic cities.
Grittiness is not always bad. Once, gritty and Pittsburgh were one and the same. And while we do appreciate the cleaner air, not all of us think street art and graffiti are vandalism. But in our changing neighborhoods there is less tolerance for certain types of expression. D.S. Kinsel, the artist and co-founder of Boom Concepts, said recently on WESA that the arrest of tagger Max Gonzales is “a reflection of social divisions at work.”
With the increasing awareness that things in this country are far from equitable for African Americans, places like the August Wilson Center remind us of the importance of cultural expression and differing perspectives.
The exhibition The Other Side of Pop, in the Center’s second-floor gallery, is a group show of work that reflects our cultural milieu. There are references to Instagram, Bill Cosby, hashtags, Michael Jackson, cartoon characters, emojis, Black Lives Matter, the Steelers and Jean-Michel Basquiat — who, by the way, helped bring graffiti art into the mainstream, and whose paintings now sell for millions at auction.
Curated by Sean Beauford, the exhibition is less polished than the professionally designed and interpretive exhibitions that previously inhabited this space. The overriding premise is that the show “illuminates creativity that, despite it’s [sic] influence, isn’t always given the recognition it deserves.” If Beauford means the hip-hop aesthetic, those of us who remember the 1980s might beg to differ. There’s a reason the mural by Cey Adams, a contemporary of Basquiat and Keith Haring, steals the show here. And the exhibit’s title is a bit of a misnomer, as the work included is not on the “other side of pop” but rests squarely on its shoulders. While Beauford’s earnestness is palpable, the exhibition’s thesis falls short.