Clement Price Institute "Resurrects" Kea’s Ark

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Gallery Aferro and the Clement A. Price Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience open major exhibition on Kea Tawana’s Ark, Newark’s legendary piece of public art, September 24 – December 17, 2016

Kea Tawana’s Ark, a three-story wooden boat that rose above Newark NJ’s Central Ward, was only extant for five years, from 1982-1987. Yet hundreds of people have come forward during the past year to share their vivid memories of the ark, which was built by one woman out of salvaged pieces of city houses, churches, schools, and factories. In much the same manner, Gallery Aferro and the Clement A. Price Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience at Rutgers University – Newark have “built” an exhibit out of the carefully gathered, surviving pieces of an incredible true story: archival press and TV broadcast footage; ephemera from private and public collections; photographs from artists, journalists, and family photo albums; new oral history recordings; maps and geographic data; and previously un-exhibited examples of Kea’s artwork, writings, and objects, including a collection of handmade stained glass windows and a set of blueprints for a utopian city, combine to create an immersive experience deep in a complicated story.

While the exhibit is the culmination of a large-scale research and oral history project, it is generative and interactive in nature. By the December 17th closing reception, new content created by members of the public will have been added to a community archive documenting Kea’s Ark. That content will include a virtual exhibit component created with help from 200 NJ girl scouts; a “radio play,” comprised of Facebook comments about the ark and inspired by Kea’s skill at making and using homemade radios, will be given voice by community actors; and, of course, a diverse and expanding collection of oral histories generated by the ongoing call for memories of the ark.

As a community archive, the project is guided by the way that current and former Newarkers compare memories of the ark in call and response rounds of online and in-person conversation, sometimes working through to consensus, and sometimes not. The exhibit and archive will not lay claim to “a definitive official version” of the story. Instead, they honor a multiplicity of perspectives, the endurance and complications of memory, and the ways in which one individual’s gesture inspired and informed multiple lives.

The exhibit is ultimately as much about the present and future as it is about the past. One oral history respondent vividly recalls Kea urging neighborhood residents to purchase properties in the Central Ward, even as the popular wisdom of the day indicated that these properties were low in value. This prophecy of future displacement for working-class people in postindustrial cities, connects powerfully to current national debates about gentrification, artwashing, creative placemaking, affordable housing, and the creative class theories of Richard Florida, as well as Martha Rosler’s critiques of those theories.

The empty lots on which the ark stood are now surrounded by low- and middle-income townhomes. That such housing was and is still much needed in Newark, and that local residents nonetheless remember and celebrate the Ark, points to the complex networks of desires and needs that have shaped urban redevelopment and its architectural forms over the past thirty years. At a time when so much of Newark's built environment was being demolished and replaced, the Ark constituted a large-scale piece of protest architecture, a critique -- in the very materials and methods of its construction -- of the structures rising up around it as the city transitioned from postwar public-modern structures (especially high-rise public housing) to neoliberal, individual-family structures (especially townhomes). As a laboratory for trends in urban renewal, Newark boasts an impressive catalog of building styles both extant (from a neoclassical county courthouse to Mies van der Rohe's modernist Colonnade apartments) and absent (Kawaida Towers, Kea's Ark). The ark can be seen as Newark’s version of the Watts Towers (Los Angeles, extant), Broken Angel (Brooklyn, absent), or the Heidelberg Project (Detroit, being dismantled during 2016-17).

Kea’s practice of assembling salvaged, disparate, and repaired elements into the ark continued in later artworks, which powerfully evoke continued engagement with loss, memory, protest, and resilience. Objects being publicly exhibited for the first time include more than 30 handmade stained glass windows that extend the vernacular of the black church in Newark, and an extraordinary set of locking cabinets, reminiscent of Joseph Cornell’s works. Using intricate coding systems still being studied and deciphered, and associative combinations of repurposed and original images and texts, Kea’s later works, like the ark, are simultaneously nonlinear autobiographical narrative and cultural commentary on life in urban America.

The public is invited to explore the meaning and significance of this quintessential Newark story through the exhibit as well as connected public programming, with additional speakers and activities to be announced throughout the fall:

Kea's Ark of Newark: a Life in Works
September 24 – December 17, 2016
Opening Reception September 24, 7-10 PM
Gallery Aferro 73 Market St Newark NJ

September 24, 7-10 PM: Opening reception and Ark Invocation: song and spoken word by Emily Turonis and Kween Moore

October 21, 8 PM: Ark Invocation: dance performance by Storyboard P

November 5, 2 PM Locating the Ark Part 1: Discussion with Richard Cammarieri, Sharon Zukin, Caitlin Tucker-Melvin, Torkwase Dyson, Kameelah Janan Rasheed, Julia Rabig and others to be announced.

November 7, 6:30 PM: Ark of Bones: Reading and Discussion of the late Henry Dumas's short story "Ark of Bones" with writers, critics and poets Evie Shockley and Carter Mathes (Rutgers-New Brunswick) and John Keene (Rutgers-Newark). In collaboration with the Department of African American and African Studies at Rutgers University-Newark

November 12, 5 PM: Locating the Ark Part 2: Screenings and Discussion with Margot Niederland, Broken Angel, and Tiona McClodden/Harriet’s Gun Media, KILO | Iba se 99.

December 17, 3 PM: Closing Reception and 8th Annual Potluck, with listening party for radio play, and performance by Newark Boys Chorus, and other guests.

This fall and winter, join us to talk about art and aesthetics, equity, community self-determination, civic disinvestment, gentrification, shelter, urban planning, beauty, utility and the control of public space, public art, and artist-built and vernacular architecture. Walk up to the hacked payphone in the middle of the gallery, pick up the receiver, and listen to the stories being told: the 1980’s are calling.

FREE GROUP TOURS AVAILABLE: Book a free tour for your group to explore Kea’s Ark of Newark: a Life in Works. Gallery Aferro has hosted tours for a wide range of groups, including schools, colleges, senior groups, professional and civic associations, recovery programs, and many others. Contact Gallery Aferro at to inquire.

CALL FOR VOICES REMAINS OPEN: Anyone wishing to share their own story of the Ark should send a message to or call Emma Wilcox at the ark hotline 973-536-0290, we continue to collect stories.

RADIO PLAY VOICE ACTORS SOUGHT: Community members of all ages and timbres are invited to contribute to an original play written by Dr. Mark Krasovic based on Facebook discussion about the ark. To get involved please contact

For more information about Gallery Aferro visit

For more information about the Clement A. Price Institute visit

This program is funded by the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, a state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities; the New Jersey Historical Commission; and a generous donation from Warren Grover. We gratefully acknowledge everyone who has and continues to support and contribute to this project, most notably, Up Front Exhibition Space, Port Jervis, New York.