The Nasher unveiled the second Xchange public art project on Friday, and it's positioned to be the most public of them all. We mentioned a while back that Rick Lowe, Houston's famous artist/activist and the man responsible for rebuilding the area's Third Ward with his Project Row Houses, would be working at our own entrenched melting pot, Vickery Meadow, a three square-mile bend of roughly 100 apartment buildings where 27 languages converge. The area is known as much for its crime rates as its extensive cultural diversity, a combination that's kept neighbors from communicating with one another.
The project, Trans.lation: Vickery Meadow, is grass roots, distilled. Lowe's mission is to unite this culturally and verbally disparate neighborhood through arts education, food and sense of community, culminating in a series of five open-air public markets happening in Vickery Meadow on select Saturdays during the length of Xchange's run (October 19 to February 16).
Before any of that can happen he and his team of busy Dallas arts activists must sell the idea to those already living there. Friday was their first public rousing effort, and to get the community's attention, Lowe's crew organized a simple, but beautiful block party where tables stretched out in the shade, offering heirloom recipes from each of Vickery Meadow's cultural influences.
Designed as a multicultural potluck, diversity of nourishment abounded: bone-in fish sat next to bitter greens; Indian donuts bumped gelatinously into flan. And greeting all who crouched on the grass was a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony, where beans were roasted, brewed and served by a charming family of women who also prepared generous baskets of steamed and baked breads, plus platters of sweet popcorn. Completing the circuit of sensory experience, a bowl of incense smoldered. The woman pouring the coffee, dressed in colors of the Ethiopian flag, said the spicy scents were shavings of barks and saps, scraped from three of her country's native trees. They wafted, blending with the smell of the potent brew as they snapped and burned. Across the yard people danced as a group of African drummers brought music outdoors.
Casually the crowd grew as neighbors gave in, leaving their apartments to inspect the gathering. Once there, they sat together, nodding and waving while their children played those universally-approved games, like tunneling beneath chairs to grab their parents' and grandparents' legs. You get the feeling that this exchange is new. That there hadn't been a reason for neighbors to converge before. Not on this block, anyway.
Lowe, with the help of three translators -- one working in Spanish, another Nepali and the last in Swahili -- broke down the plan's simple, basic components for the crowd. Standing under the shade of an old vibrant tree, a christened Trans.lation 'home base,' Lowe explained that all talents are welcome in this community marketplace. Whether it's crafting, painting, or sculpting items to sell, or dancing and creating music, all gifts and cultural legacies will be honored and showcased.
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Some of those training efforts have already begun. Lowe's team has started organizing and offering art programs at a nearby community center. Two apartments in the neighborhood have also been donated to the cause; they'll act dually as volunteer headquarters and artists-in-residences. On Friday, the units had just been given a remodel: with sinks and toilets now installed, Lowe's team is eager to get to work, encouraging involvement from within.
It's an exciting project, the most philosophically-rooted piece of public art we'll see during Xchange. It's also the most ambitious. Trans.lation's success will be determined on whether or not this long-neglected neighborhood decides to let an outsider come in and stir up its melting pot. Whether those already living here will want to contribute their backgrounds and energies when most have been environmentally conditioned to keep their heads down, and focus on their own sides of those thinly-walled units.
Still, on Friday the temperature under the massive tree was a few, important degrees cooler than it was on the sidewalk. A fresh energy penetrated this plot of geography, accented by the music, food and scents surrounding its trunk. And neighbors who couldn't communicate directly through words, touched each others shoulders and shared plates while pointing out their favorite dishes .
Community-building through buffet? Lowe might just be on to something.