BHMF Talks: Reimagining Spaces With Karyn Olivier

Karyn Olivier’s resume is intimidating, but at her talk entitled “Invisibility, Mutability and the Reimagining of Spaces,”  her warm demeanor made everyone in her presence feel at ease. She sees her immediate environment as her canvas, transforming the mundane into works of art that are not only thought provoking , but that serve the users of the spaces she engages with. She guided the audience through her impressive portfolio of artwork, imparting her inspiration behind the art, her creative process and the impact of her work. Here are three stand out pieces from the talk:

The Functional Library
Born in Trinidad in Tobago, Olivier holds her Caribbean heritage very close to her. Though she left as an infant to live in New York, she returned home every summer where she had the opportunity to authentically engage with her roots. However, being split between these two worlds (New York and Trinidad), she acknowledged that a complicated view of one’s identity can arise, so she wanted to facilitate the expansion people’s knowledge of their Caribbean heritage. She decided to transform a Caribbean food store in New York into a functional library, placing Caribbean literature in between food items. Bottles of pepper sauce and candied fruit were accompanied by a variety of Caribbean titles, an unexpected but poignant pairing. A Caribbean food store conjures feelings of nostalgia of home for many Caribbean people, and serves as a means to preserve one’s cultural identity in a foreign place. As books are not perishable like food is, the library was a symbol of an enduring connection to one’s home away from home. It was great to see the images of community members interacting with the books as they shopped, reminding me of the genius of the interactive nature of her art.

You can see pictures of this work on her website:

Community Billboard
Another one of my favorites was a project where she challenged what images are displayed in a highly gentrified black neighborhood. Responding to the reality that many poor, black neighborhoods are often purposely plagued with tobacco and liquor advertisements, Olivier decided to give this community an alternative to this harmful imagery. She took a picture of two residents of the community and placed it on an advertising billboard, which to me, conveyed a message of them claiming ownership of their community. This was an act of defiance, and a means to hand this community a sense of power over what they choose to put in their community. Though simple, her project was an extremely bold way of fighting back against a system that has stripped black communities of their autonomy.

The Dome – “Witness”
My favorite piece of artwork that she presented was a project that mimicked the elaborately painted domes of cathedrals. Instead of religious symbols and figures, she placed painted figures of slaves around the inside of a gold dome, symbolic of elevating them to the divine. I was especially moved by this work considering that slaves who were stripped of their humanity and agency are now elevated to a point of sacredness. Besides the beauty in the technical execution of the art, I thought the project was a beautiful way to honor the lives of the oppressed. The writing around the dome is a Frederick Douglass quote which reads “There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.”  

You can see this work on her website:

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