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Culture Couch is WYSO's occasional series exploring the arts and culture scene in our community. It’s stories about creativity – told through creative audio storytelling.

Allie Martin's 'This is a Black Neighborhood' comes to Columbus

For exhibit title image: This Is A Black Neighborhood
David Seitz
/
WYSO

Every artist dreams of working in a new environment. If they are lucky, they are offered a residency to explore new ideas. That happened to artist Allie Martin and for a few days people can hear what she created while staying in the home and studio of the celebrated Aminah Robinson in Columbus. David Seitz visited Martin’s sound work “This is a Black Neighborhood.”

You need to walk slowly around the room of the gallery, sometimes just next to the walls. This motion triggers the sensors. Only then can you hear the sounds that Allie Martin has collected and composed. Martin said, “Because as people move around that space and trigger different things with different combinations, the room is an instrument, and I want people to play it.

Text on the wall tells the stories behind each sound in the exhibit. Richel Culyer, a young black woman, felt at home when she walked around the gallery. “I really adore the concept that anywhere can be a Black neighborhood where there is the fullness of Black life through sound,” Culyer said.

Each sound is mounted on walls and pedestals and is activated by a motion sensor. Text tells the story of where and why each sound was recorded.
David Seitz
/
WYSO
Each sound is mounted on walls and pedestals and is activated by a motion sensor. Text tells the story of where and why each sound was recorded.

Amplifying Black identity through sound

Artist Allie Martin is also a professor of ethnomusicology at Dartmouth College. She first studied Black music and sound in Washington DC. It was a time of gentrification in the city — construction was everywhere. Black music clubs were getting forced out, so she started asking folks “what does gentrification sound like? Someone said smooth jazz. Others said, “a complaint” — complaints about noise.

“Complaints are so tricky, Martin said. “What are you complaining about? Who are you complaining to? And what do you want to be done? Because as soon as you are asking for police intervention for noise complaints, you are putting a Black person’s life in danger. As soon as you say, 'I want the police here to stop this,' then we’re getting into some territory.”

The Columbus Museum of Art gave her a writer’s residency at the Aminah Robinson house. Aminah Robinson’s art celebrated Black life in Columbus for over 50 years. And Martin listens to the sounds.

“A concert can be a Black neighborhood,” Martin said. “A cookout, a person, a giggle, a cackle, the sounds of playing cards hitting the table, a grandmother’s wail, a hand clap. I’m talking about the things that I know to be the sounds of black life. And so yes, I’m really just holding black neighborhoods as spaces where Black people sound.”

After many years listening to the sounds of Black neighborhoods facing gentrification, Martin wanted to amplify the sounds of Black joy like this drumline from East High school in Columbus. “I’m making art,” Martin said. “That’s what I am doing. So I’m making this show that is about not only listening to Black people but reflecting back what I hear in Black neighborhoods. And so I’m taking these sounds and composing around them.”

Allie Martin examines Aminah Robinson’s musical score in an artwork at the Columbus Museum of Art.
Courtesy Allie Martin and the Columbus Museum of Art
Allie Martin examines Aminah Robinson’s musical score in an artwork at the Columbus Museum of Art.

Artistic reflections and redefining spaces

Remember, Allie Martin was staying at Aminah Robinson’s house, and she saw beautiful musical notation in the art. Martin, a musician, sang some of these musical lines to create, “Aminah’s Wave Song.”
“They’re beautiful,” Martin said. “They are…they’re not traditionally composed. And so if you’re looking at it from Western music standards, you’re not going to be able to play them. But if you think about it as a graphic score, as a kind of suggestion, as gesture, as texture, they’re playable.”

Martin discussed her purpose behind her art. “I want to make work that makes, makes Black people feel safe and make Black people be able to sound without subjection because we rarely get to do that."

“Because Black neighborhoods get reduced to these murals and these plaques that say, “This is a historically Black neighborhood,” but they don’t actually want Black sound and Black people, and all of what comes with that. And so this show is to say we gotta, if there are enough people invested in hearing this life, then we can have it.”

You can experience This is a Black Neighborhood through Friday, August 25 at the Sarah Gormley Gallery, 95 N. High St. in Columbus. Admission is free. Visit sarahgormleygallery.com or columbusmuseum.org.

David Seitz learned his basic audio writing skills in the third Community Voices class. Since then he has produced many stories on music, theater, dance, and visual art for Cultural Couch. He is deeply grateful that most of my stories bring out social justice issues in a variety of art forms, whether it be trans gender singing, the musical story of activist Bayard Rustin, or men performing Hamilton in prison.