Had we not been personally escorted through the unmarked double doors that lead to Kenkeleba Gallery, Manhattan Sideways might not ever have known it was here. The only sign on the building reads Henington Hall, etched into the stone facade along with the year it was built, 1908. According to Joe Overstreet, in the 70’s the building was condemned until he and his wife, Corinne Jennings, were able to strike a deal with the city in 1978. Although 2nd Street was teeming with drug activity back then, the arrangement proved worthwhile for Overstreet, as it gave him, his wife, three children and the emerging Kenkeleba House a home in an area that eventually cleaned up its act and became one of the most important neighborhoods for the arts in New York City.
Since its founding, Kenkeleba House has flown under the radar as a not-for-profit gallery space and artist workspace. Joe and Corinne were only interested in promoting new ideas, emerging artists, experimental work, and solo shows for those deserving of the recognition. They preferred to showcase artists whose works were not typically featured in commercial galleries, focusing primarily on African American art. Joe and Corinne’s vision of Kenkeleba House - as a space for artists to grow, to showcase African American that oftentimes would have been lost, and teaching African American history through gallery shows - was only possible due to their extensive background in art as well as their immense individual efforts.
Corinne was born into a family of artists in an isolated part of Rhode Island, and until she was about twelve or thirteen, she thought “that’s what everyone did- I thought people made things.” Her father, a talented printmaker who studied under Hale Woodruff, is widely known for his black and white wood engravings and costume jewelry. The Wilmer Jennings Gallery - across the street on 2nd Street - is named for him. Jennings’ mother was a Yale graduate and painter. Corinne came to New York in the 1960’s, originally wanting to be a scenic designer. Even though she was qualified, she was turned away by the head of the scenic designer’s union with the explanation that they did not want any women or black people. She instead started to do art projects, and eventually decided to “tackle some of issues that prevented African American artists from fully developing.”
Corinne and Joe spent a lot of time speaking with artists from different parts of West Africa and the Caribbean, eventually coming upon the realization that “they needed to find a different way for people to develop, for people to have space to work, [and] to find alternative educational routes for people.” In 1978, Joe and Corinne purchased an abandoned building on second street, fixed it up, and opened up their first art exhibition in 1980. From then on, they began amassing their extensive and remarkable collection.
The exhibits on display in this gallery recognize the rarely explored contributions that people of African descent have made to the art world. It is here, hanging on the walls and filed away in the deepest recesses of their private collection, we were showed a portrait of Dr. John DeGrasse painted by a largely forgotten African-American artist by the name of Edward Mitchell Banister (1828-1901). Banister won a national award for his most famous painting, “Under the Oaks.” The magnificent framed picture of Dr. DeGrasse is easily worth more money than we could count, but the history lesson we received from Joe was priceless. Dr. DeGrasse was a native New Yorker and also one of the first African-Americans to receive a medical degree. He gained acceptance to the Boston Medical Society in 1854, making him the first African-American to belong to a medical association in that state. And to boot, he was also the first African-American medical officer in the U.S. Army serving as Assistant Surgeon in the Civil War. In addition, Manhattan Sideways viewed works dating back to 1773, by the late Hale Woodruff, an African-American abstract painter who lived in New York City from 1943 until his death in 1980. In addition to being an artist who aspired to express his heritage, Woodruff was also an art educator and member of the faculty at New York University.
“We are African-American, so that is what we do,” said Corinne, “but we are also interested in artists from the Lower East Side.” Corinne’s personal art collection reflects much of her parent’s amazing work, as well as that of other African-American artists, both well-known and yet undiscovered. Kenkeleba Gallery aims to teach the younger generations about African-American history. “Every nationality walks by here on a daily basis, but they have no idea who we are as a people.” Joe and Corinne were well aware of the contribution African-Americans have made to the arts that began right here in this community. Their private collection is made up of over 30,000 paintings, artifacts, art books and jazz records that tell the rich history of African-Americans in this country.
Andrew Castrucci has been bottling his own urine since 1986. The five-pound jugs began as an alternative to the single toilet all the building’s squatters had to share and were later launched off the roof like hand grenades when the police attempted to evict the residents. When the Manhattan Sideways team visited Andrew in 2017, the jugs were still defiant and airborne, dangling from the ceiling by invisible fishing lines in the gallery on the first floor of that same building. The jugs hung before a gloomy portrait of Donald J. Trump that Andrew made in 1986 and were just one installation in an entire exhibit devoted to art protesting the 45th President. The Bullet Space gallery is a true throwback to another time in the East Village. Andrew, a well-regarded sculptor and abstract painter, runs a non-profit artist’s collaborative in his “unconventional” space. He features shows curated exclusively by residents of the building, ensuring that all exhibitions have connections to the East Village community. As Andrew explained it, “We work outside the gallery system.” The lifespan of every show is two months, in an effort to promote as many artists as possible. The responsibility of organizing the shows rotates among the artists, and each exhibition displays a variety of media and pieces from around the world. Andrew described the building as a “living workspace.”The gallery’s title arose from an effort to take ownership of the name “bullet,” a brand of heroin so rampant in the area during the 1980s and 90s that it earned East 3rd Street the nickname “Bullet Block.” Andrew revealed how the neighborhood has changed since that time, saying: “I don’t have fifty people coming up to me everyday asking to buy coke and crack and heroine anymore.”In 1991, the squatting artists completed a book called “Your House is Mine,” a collection of works depicting homelessness, the fight for civil rights, gentrification and other issues of the Lower East Side. The book has been showcased in the collections of twenty museums, including the Whitney, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Victoria & Albert museum in London. The book’s success, however, was eclipsed by the fallout of the reality it exposed: “I couldn’t even celebrate because I was the only one alive from the exhibition,” Andrew admitted.Andrew and his neighbors squatted in the building until 2001, when they bought it through a non-profit for $1.00. The residents had been performing skits and putting up their artwork in the space long before the first floor became an official gallery. Although most occupants are still artists, Andrew is the sole resident who remains in the building from the initial group in 1986.Future exhibits will include art exclusively created by children, ball-point pen works, and a show honoring the late Melvin Way, a poet who lived in the building. Bullet Space often displays art that has been rejected from more commercial venues for being too unconventional. “We’re considered off-off Broadway,” Andrew said. While speaking with him, we also learned that he teaches guerrilla art and graphic design at the School of Visual Art and has worked as a cartoon artist for the New York Times and the Daily News.While Andrew's 2017 show, titled "Wrong Side of History," spotlighted political art, Bullet Space's exhibitions engage with a variety of topics. Andrew still carries the torch of rebellion, putting in a conscious effort to incorporate “underrepresented forms of art,” such as graffiti art, Native American art, and pieces done by women. “The show has a strong women's presence,” he told us while pointing to a pink hat found on the sidewalk during the Women’s March in NYC in January of 2017. The “interesting artifact” sat on a table below a print that read: “Nevertheless, she persisted.” "Wrong Side of History" featured pieces from around the globe and from different time periods, touching on several themes that the current administration has been criticized for, such as xenophobia, sexism, media usage, and more. Some pieces address President Trump's more explicitly, like the giant sculpture of his head made out of horse manure that Andrew obtained from his Amish neighbors upstate. The works not only impress viewers for their visual aesthetic, but evoke queries such as "Who owns the truth?", "How are opinions shaped?", and "What happens when the viewer leaves the gallery?". The art extends beyond the physical stillness of an object to be looked at, interacting with the viewer like a cognitive jousting partner, spurring contemplation of the concepts in the gallery. “To keep your sanity, you have to respond somehow,” Andrew stated. “I believe in art having power - art can change the tide.”
Wild Project serves as both a production company, and a live-performance theater and event space (available for rent) for emerging contemporary theater, art, film and dance. The eco-friendly designed space includes a theater that is comfortable and intimate with just ninety seats and an airy and modern art gallery.
Kenkeleba Garden, named for an African healing plant, is simply magical. We followed the densely forested greenery around to the back, arriving at a clearing that transported us to another world far from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan. We were completely surprised when we landed in front of the sculpture garden, which is only visible from 3rd Street. From large African sculptures to collections of scraps or bricolage, a specialty of the Lower East Side art scene, we could not help but linger before doubling back and re-emerging onto the concrete sidewalks of 2nd Street. It was not until many months later, when we had the pleasure of meeting Joe Overstreet and his wife, Corinne Jennings, that we learned that this is affiliated with their gallery next door, Kenkeleba House. It is their life-long dream to someday use these grounds to build a museum that would house their massive collection of African-American art.
The space is fabulous at Billy Reid, furnished with vintage southern pieces and housed in an amazing Bond Street building. Billy began his fashion business in Alabama and opened up his inviting menswear enclave here in 2008. Soft flannel shirts, great suede boots, woven skinny ties, colorful bow ties, well-made blazers, beautiful striped shirts and more…I love everything about this boutique, and each time I stop by, I am inspired to makeover the men in men in my family. Billy designs much of the clothing in the store (minus the Levi jeans). He has gorgeous fabrics to choose from for suits and sport jackets. And, there is a tasteful selection for women.