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Shellyne Rodriguez on Her Radical Teach-Ins and Vibrant Portraits of the Bronx

Shellyne Rodriguez’s exhibition on view at P·P·O·W in New York through April 22 functions as a kind of curriculum. The artist, community organizer, and educator created a space for studying radical thought surrounded by 22 large drawings in colored pencil. Drawn on large sheets of black paper and based on photographs, several are intimate portraits of comrades, thinkers, and friends; some feature stacks of books that point the viewer toward texts undergirding the show, including works of revolutionary theory and histories of militant internationalism. In Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s Syllabus in Rehearsal (2023), the abolitionist geographer stands, smiling, next to a stack of books that includes texts by Mike Davis, W.E.B. Du Bois, Angela Davis, and Karl Marx. Works by these and other authors are available in a reading room in the gallery; some titles and musical tracks are also accessible by QR code in the exhibition pamphlet. Other drawings feature silhouetted scenes of everyday life in the Bronx, including forms of collective joy (popping wheelies on an ATV, gossiping with friends), informal economies (street vendors), and members of the many migrant communities in the borough.

In three drawings comprising a series titled “BX Mixtapes” (2021–22),Rodriguez’s sampling of references is even more explicit: large pieces structured around a scaffolding of neon-colored lines, they remix elements from early hip-hop posters produced by Buddy Esquire and Phase II. The “BX Mixtapes” overflow with figures from the neighborhood, international revolutionary slogans, and allusions to both hip-hop and art history. They are constellations of scenes from the Bronx as seen from a bodega window, refracted and lit up by the LED glow of the ubiquitous storefronts. The artist is also hosting teach-ins throughout the exhibition’s run, some in collaboration with the radical thinkers pictured in the drawings. —Andreas Petrossiants

Can you tell me about the portraits?

The portraits are of radical scholars, some of whom are depicted next to stacks of books that I organized when I photographed them. I wanted to highlight inherited genealogies from liberation struggles, rooted in the Black Radical tradition and histories of Indigenous resistance. While someone like Ruth Wilson Gilmore might not appear in the scenes from my neighborhood that are in the show, her abolitionist and materialist thinking is present in the way that I think. And others too. Revolutionaries like [historian] Walter Rodney and [anti-colonial thinker] Amílcar Cabral are there, even if they’re not pictured or referenced.

Other drawings include scenes of struggle or collective life. In Coco, Cherry, Tamarindo, Parcha (2022) and Uncle’s Jack Fruit Hustle (2022), for example, you show street vendors who cater to migrant communities in the borough. In BICOPs on the Third of May (2022), we see, per the clever wordplay in your title, a young kid being interrogated by four cops “of color.”

In BICOPs, I’m pointing to the reality of what police look like right now … which is us. I mean, we have a Black cop mayor in New York City. For liberation struggles to be effective, we have to be honest. I think we’re at a pivotal point, moving away from liberal Black Lives Matter rhetoric that pushed the 2020 counterinsurgency following the George Floyd rebellions. This rhetoric often held up the white cop as a straw man, and ignored the fact that the police were looking more and more like us. This comes, in part, from a kind of exploitation of the working class.

If you look closely, the kid being held up by the cops has a Los Deliveristas Unidos [NYC coalition of app-based delivery workers] sticker on his scooter. I didn’t add that. This was the scene I saw and photographed.

BICOPS is the only drawing where you see explicit confrontation. But, even when it’s not pictured, we understand that confrontation always looms. In another drawing, On the Subject of Defiant Mobility (2022), there’s a kid popping a wheelie on an ATV next to a delivery worker on a scooter. With the former figure, I’m highlighting the audaciousness of the Biker Boys who take the streets undeterred by NYPD’s futile crackdown. Here, defiant mobility references the presence of migrants remaking their worlds inside the empire, despite the violence and death inflicted under what Harsha Walia calls “Border Imperialism.”

The title of The Common Denominator (2023), a drawing of an isolated steam radiator, reminded me of how, in New York, you find these devices in rent-controlled buildings, Section 8 housing, and fancy co-ops alike. How do you see that drawing fitting in with the others?

Who’s living with these radiators in the Bronx today? I see them in the homes of descendants of the Great Migration, Puerto Ricans from Operation Bootstrap in the 1950s, the Dominicans who came to New York in the ’80s, the Albanians and Cambodians who migrated in the ’90s, and so on. All of this is forced migration. How is it that we can organize and build collective power to confront predatory landlords, police, and so on? That conversation starts with the radiator when it breaks down and the landlord is nowhere to be found. It’s like Fred Moten says, “The coalition emerges out of your recognition that it’s fucked up for you, in the same way that we’ve already recognized that it’s fucked up for us.”

Let’s talk about the three “Mixtapes”drawings.

Hip-hop is constantly shape-shifting in order to live and survive. My work is rooted in these techniques of sampling and remixing, and so I remixed frames from Esquire’s style—he called it Neo Deco—into colors that borrow from the lit-up signs outside bodegas. I borrow references from art history, but also indigenous, local, and global histories; African spiritual traditions; old school hip-hop slang; poetry; music; incantations; love spells; radical pedagogy; and secret messages and cultural references communicated in the many languages spoken by the migrants and diasporas that make their home in the Bronx. My drawings form containers where past, present, and future are held.

The exhibition brochure diagrams all the references in the “Mixtapes.” In BX Third World Mixtape no. 4, Caminos (Slow and Steady), 2022, there are people from your neighborhood walking along different paths, but they are connected by the borough, and by the images and texts that float around them. For example, at the very bottom, you’ve drawn a turtle indigenous to New York to situate us. What are some other elements you’re remixing here?

That composition was informed by Paolo Uccello’s painting Hunt by Night (ca. 1465–70). All the figures in that piece are walking diagonally, like in the Uccello, where he uses hunting dogs running in different directions to organize the space. In mine, there’s that horizon line as well, but right on that line there’s the spiral caracol, a Maya symbol employed by the Zapatistas. And there’s Caravaggio in all the pieces too, in the use of everyday figures and models off the street. Of course I’m sampling from the canon of European art; it’s inside me whether I like it or not, along with all the debt that I incurred going to school to learn that history! I’m always in solidarity with the artists. The people hanging on the wall didn’t do shit to me.