NATHANIEL DONNETT’s “Sub-woofer” public art installation featured in New Haven Independent

26 Aug

Artist Goes Guerrilla Public

by LINDSEY MANCINI | Aug 19, 2021 9:07 am

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Posted to: Arts & CultureVisual Arts

Nathaneil Donnett Photos

From the sidewalk, you might see it from across the street. It looks like it’s supposed to be there, a bit of straightforward wooden fencing that might contain an electrical box or some other public utility.

But if you look closely, you might notice one slat of the fencing is painted a deep blue. If you cross the street, you’ll see the wood is patterned, and that the whole object stands as an entirely different kind of public utility.

Inside the fencing is an altar that celebrates music and the celestial world within — and for — a community

Danielle De Jesus Photo

Nathaniel Donnett, an artist who splits his time between New Haven and Houston (and was part of a group show at City Gallery in May), created the public installation, Sub-woofer, on a Sunday in July.

It now stands in an undisclosed location in New Haven as the start of a public, visual conversation with the community living directly around it.

As the artist described it, “it’s another band member in the group ensemble” that is the public space.

Donnett selected this location because the people living in the neighborhood are mostly working-class Black people. It’s the kind of neighborhood plagued by education and housing issues, while it’s also a target of gentrification.

“These neighborhoods remind me of the neighborhoods I was raised in,” Donnett said, writing to me via email that these neighborhoods contain significant cultural value that often become coopted by institutions. These institutions downplay their complicity in this theft, and fail to give back to the communities that allow them to grow and flourish.

“Those relationships seemed strained or rarely coincide,” Donnett said, “The piece speaks to that complex relationship in a general way.”

The structure of the piece consists of three panels of wooden fencing leaning against one another at their edges. The triangular fence subverts notions of access; that is, you can’t get inside. But through the slats in the panelling, and in a pattern of cut-outs — each containing a pair of tambourine jingles — you can see an installation inside that inaccessible space, made up of records representing some of America’s greatest musicians: Count Basie, Roscoe Robinson, the Jackson 5, Nancy Wilson, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Louis Armstrong. If you’re tall enough, you can peer over the fence to catch a full view of the records within, but there’s a strong sense of interiority versus exteriority — what’s protected as opposed to what’s visible from afar.

Donnett selected the tambourine jingles that allow for this visual gateway into the piece because of their use in the Southern Black church. In Sub-woofer, they imply sound and movement, bringing rhythm and accent to the familiar, static panelling of the wood.

“I was at a funeral a couple of years ago and noticed that it [the tambourine] was played as a single solo instrument, but the jingles acted as a collective,” Donnett said. “That reminded me how people employ acts of individualism and collective action as not a singular thing, but a multiplicity of actions.”

Since it was a Sunday, the installation of the piece itself was uneventful. Donnett took three visits to the site and an extra trip to the record store, but no one approached him as he worked.

“I think sometimes people can sense your energy,” he said. “They can sense if you’re there to harm or to create problems.” After setting up the piece’s wooden infrastructure, Donnett returned, installing the albums purchased from a local record store on site.

The patterns of the tambourine jingles reference the constellations of stars, employing elements of sacred geometry to create a percussive grid that’s both implemented and disrupted by the viewer’s own expectations of where the next dash of silver will lie.

“The pattern utilizes a visual language where sound is silent,” said Donnett, “and expected based on our personal relationship to sound, socializing of sound, and social agreement.”

The line of blue that signals the piece from afar works almost like a metronome, keeping time. The rich ultramarine reaches back and historically across continents, through Egyptian, Buddhist, and European paintings to the first uses of lapis lazuli about 9,000 years ago in present-day Afghanistan. For Donnett, the color represents both spirituality and humanity, and its implementation here, on a single piece of wood, reveals “the individual amongst many other individuals.”

To the artist, the blue line (almost a Barnett Newman-type “zip”) is especially important “considering the shift in the spatial and symbolic dynamic when approaching the piece,” he said. The color works to translate the object from utilitarian to sculptural, from intellectual to spiritual, from exclusion to invitation, from artist to community and back again, as New Haven discovers it.

Available Artwork by NATHANIEL DONNETT

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