Developers have set their sights on the South Bronx, seeing it as the “next” neighborhood, an artsy enclave ripe for the taking. Their vicious cycle of urban colonization rejects truth in order to create a myth that will sell luxury condos to transplants while displacing a community that has been long neglected.
South Bronx native and multi-disciplinary artist Shellyne Rodriguez’s Incarnations of Belphegor illuminates this myth created by the gentrifying forces. Belphegor, seen in Rodriguez’s collage as a seven headed horned beast (resembling a leopard), is one of the seven princes of hell. His Modus Operandi is to seduce people by suggesting to them “ingenious inventions” that will make them rich. A critical analysis of predatory gestures drives the visual narrative in Shellyne’s work. The demon Rodriguez envisions has been summoned onto an empty plot of land within the neighborhood, which is ripe for the taking by prospective developers who will then push out longtime residents in order to lure their new mega rich patrons.
There is a strong dose of irony and poignant humor within Shellyne Rodriguez’s works. Her often playful yet thoughtful titles also illuminate these narratives. The mythology that she incorporates into contemporary urban issues creates work that looks at our city’s past, present and future and becomes an allegory for Gentrification, deception, and racism.
“The figures in my work are pulled from many different places, such as family members, people from my community and sometimes figures from my mother’s old album covers. These are figures that embody hope, false hope, despair and everything in between.”
Below are a few of the narratives told by the artist about some of the subjects of her work:
Black Benjy, The Martyr– Cornell Benjamin a.k.a. Black Benjy was the peace ambassador for the street gang The Ghetto brothers. He was killed attempting to squash a beef between two rival gangs (in the park around the corner from where my family lived) Black Benjy was well respected and his death brought the Bronx to the brink of an all out gang war. But instead, to the dismay of thirsty sensationalist media, the Ghetto Brothers declared peace! A peace treaty was signed by all Bronx gangs in what is now known as the Hoe Avenue Peace Meeting. This treaty was a catalyst for Hip Hop to flourish. Prior to this moment, the Bronx was divided into gang territories and it was impossible for rivals to mingle in different areas. But with the treaty, different crews began to party in different areas and it made it easier for Hip hop to be able to grow. So Benjy is the Catalyst, and a Martyr. (see the Doc Rubble Kings. Also the cult classic The Warriors is loosely based on this event)
Maria Magdalena is watercolor of an old photo of my mother. The title of the piece is perfect because it is her actual name. So she embodies two figures. Herself and the classic Mary Magdalene. I’m interested in synchronization. Like what occurs between Santeria and Catholicism. Again the hybridization which is the hallmark of a colonized people.
Dismugesta – this is a play on the names of the two thieves crucified with Christ usually depicted on his left and right. One was repentant and the other really didn’t give a shit. I combine these two character’s name into one. The image is a painting of my uncle, who was in jail at the time of the photo for armed robbery. My uncle went in and out of prison throughout his entire life, but his body was tattooed up with pleas for forgiveness, from God, and from his Mother. In the bottom of the photo he writes “Junito, South Bronx, Fort Apache.” He was an extra in the film Fort Apache, The Bronx, and was proud of it.
Geperudeta -. The woman is a sculpture of my aunt, who suffered in her life with mental disability and drug addiction (she’s great now). I used as a reference a photo of her that appeared in an article in the Wall Street journal, about collecting bottles for a living. So she’s called La Geperudeta, “Our lady of the forsaken”… who is described as the hunchback saint that cares for the poor, homeless, and mentally ill. In Spanish, that Virgin would be called, La Virgen De Los Desamparados… my aunts name is a derivative of this word….Amparo.
Shellyne Rodriguez was a child of the Eighties in the South Bronx. A period and neighborhood that saw the birth of Hip-Hop culture, which included the art forms of Emceeing, Djaying, B-boying, and Graffiti. This was highly influential for many of the young artists who were largely poor black and Puerto Rican kids. For them, they were at the forefront of a revolutionary avant-garde movement. For Shellyne, “the obvious choice of course would be graffiti, and I did my fair share, but ultimately my work aligns itself with hip hop through its ability to extract bits and pieces from a variety of sources and to create something new. In essence, the remix is a hybridization and Hip Hop is the ingenuity of a colonized people. A people who invented this at a time when it seems their destruction was immanent.”
The community’s social decay and devastation began in the 1970s as a result of the dissolution of the Civil Rights movement, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and the Kennedy brothers; as well as the murders and suppression of prominent Black Panthers. Vietnam War vets were returning to the neighborhood and suffering from PTSD as well as a burgeoning Heroin addiction.
Shellyne also recalls other factors including “deindustrialization which took 52% of manufacturing jobs out of New York in the span of 30 years….so unemployment. Lets dump on top of this an orchestrated Crack epidemic, and the drug war, and lets finish this off with AIDS. Somewhere in the middle of all of this, poor Black & Puerto Rican kids make up a new avant-garde Art Movement. A new music, a new way to dance to it, a new way to perform and recite, and a new way to paint. Born from the ashes of the South Bronx Fires…Literally.”
A recent party thrown in the South Bronx by Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn of Salon 94 and real estate mogul Keith Rubenstein further ingrained the stigma of the troubled Bronx neighborhood. Rohatyn commissioned the artist Lucian Smith to create an “installation” featuring bullet riddled cars and burning trash cans inside of a South Bronx warehouse, which will be a part of the new “Piano District.” The party’s aim was clear: To re-brand the South Bronx into a hip and affluent community a la Manhattan. It is eminent that the neighborhood will experience this massive change and the long standing community members, including young black and Puerto Rican artists, will be forced out. By making light of the neighborhoods plight, these brash party organizers added insult to injury.
To Shellyne, “it’s clear to me that they don’t give a shit about who is living and making in the Bronx unless its to throw a party to mock us. I mean seriously, those fires devastated our community. Imagine ten years from now, some elitist developers like Keith Rubenstein and Joseph Chetrit decide that Breezy Point, Queens, which got hit hard during Hurricane Sandy destroying many homes, is the next up and coming neighborhood. Now imagine that they decide to commemorate this plan of theirs by throwing a Hurricane Sandy themed party complete with industrial fans and pools of floating debris. Folks would lose their shit over that. But they don’t care, because this is about getting paid.”
Shellyne Rodriguez’s work is evident of the South Bronx’s real identity and culture, and gives tribute to those influential groups and individuals who shaped the neighborhood, as well as her personal life. Most recently, her assemblage Pheonix (Calling on the Spirit of the Garbage Offensive) was included in the exhibition ¡Presente! at El Museo del Barrio in Spanish Harlem. The exhibition is inspired by the legacy of the Young Lords, a group of Puerto Rican community activists who created a wealth of progressive social programs for families in Spanish Harlem (El Barrio), the Lower East Side, and the South Bronx. About the impetus for her work in the exhibition Shellyne recalls:
“Disgusted by the lack of services in the community by the Sanitation Department, the Young Lords took action by marching into the Sanitation offices and demanding brooms. When this request was met with resistance, they took the brooms by force and went into the streets to clean them. Together with the community, they swept large piles of garbage polluting the streets of El Barrio into the center of the street and set it on fire, forcing the city to respond to their demands.
This work is an invocation of this action. Charred by the revolutionary fires of burning garbage, and born like a phoenix, this deity menaces the viewer, baring her teeth. In her Great Azabache hand, she holds a whip, made from 100 small azabaches, which literally represents the power of the people. (azabaches are small charms made from Jet that are meant to protect children, they are usually in the shape of a fist) the Azabache doubles as the black power fist. When this deity swings, its with the power of the people.”
It is the power of the people that makes Shellyne Rodriguez’s work so effective and touching.