He has trekked from Tajikistan in Central Asia to Vladivostok in eastern Russia and points beyond, all to highlight the role art can play in engaging the public and inspiring vital conversations. Via these projects, Kendal Henry has enabled locals to not only think about issues important to their daily lives, but to act as well.
Recent projects include Henry’s work for Brookfield Place New York, the retail destination in downtown New York City, where he’s curated pieces like “Chaney series (a topography of reconstruction),” a collection of eight adjoining paintings by African-Caribbean artist La Vaughn Belle. Located in the Winter Garden Gallery at Brookfield Place, the works are meant to inspire thoughts beyond admiration, Henry says.
“They’re beautiful paintings, but until someone stops and reads the notes, people might not realize that they highlight details of high-end porcelain,” he explains. “They’re meant to speak to the flavor of the high-end goods being sold nearby, as well as the connection or disconnection of high-end products and the history of colonialism in those kinds of goods being sold. Of course, people aren’t necessarily meant to always get all of that. If they walk by and think, ‘That’s really beautiful,’ that’s fine as well.”
Public art has been a vital element of cultural conversations since the National Endowment for the Arts was established in 1965 and commissioned its first public work two years later. Fast-forward to 2020, and Henry says energizing that idea is key to his role. “With public art projects, I’m always thinking about how to get someone’s attention, but it has to extend much further than that,” he says. “A piece should become something people are inspired to investigate further; even if someone isn’t fully realizing it, they’re thinking about what the piece is telling them, and they’re learning something through that interaction.”
Also for Brookfield Place New York, Henry commissioned from Belle a large-scale vinyl piece titled “For Those of Us Who Live at the Shoreline,” a coastline depiction that not only captures her Caribbean heritage, but also pays tribute in a subtle way to the New York neighborhood, Battery Park City, where the shoreline is located. “This part of the city was artificially created as a landfill in the Hudson River, so this is La Vaughn Belle’s take on the idea of an artificial shoreline,” Henry says. “The tropical scene she created doesn’t feel natural in that space, but it’s not a natural space, it was artificially created. If you find yourself wondering why it feels a bit out of place, that’s intentional.” “For Those of Us Who Live at the Shoreline” and “Chaney series (a topography of reconstruction)” were on view through November 12, 2020.
Most of Henry’s personal work is produced outside the U.S. and typically starts with a call to artists. “When I get to a place, I’ll put the word out on social media and elsewhere: ‘I’m an artist, if anyone would like to work with me, let’s get together.’ Sometimes I’ll get one person and sometimes I’ll get 300,” he says.
In Tajikistan, access to drinking water has been a major issue, Henry says, so he worked with local artists to create a public art project that highlighted the issue. The exhibition ultimately traveled to different areas of Tajikistan, while his profile as an American artist also attracted local press. Three years later, the Tajik government began to change the way they distributed water to their citizens, he says.
Vladivostok, meanwhile, is overrun with vinyl advertising banners that crowd the skyline. When Henry arrived in the city, among his first experiences was discussing the problem with a cab driver, who motioned to the banners and remarked, “Why don’t you give me back my sky?” Henry soon discovered that banners are discarded when they become obsolete, so he enlisted a group of local artists, and together they retrieved and recycled the banners. “We cut them into strips and wove them into a new material, and from there we created hammocks,” Henry says. Working with a local park, the group strung the hammocks between trees, then invited the public to use them. What did each citizen discover when reclining in one of the hammocks? A view of the clear sky overhead.
“It was a really useful project, because we also were able to talk about recycling and learning new skills,” Henry says. “But that was an experience I really loved, because I gave them back some of their sky.”