Crossing Brooklyn: Pablo Helguera, 1899 (Susannah Mushatt Jones)


Through January 4, the Brooklyn Museum will present a major survey of contemporary Brooklyn art, featuring more than one hundred works from 35 artists. Crossing Brooklyn: Art from Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, and Beyond includes work in virtually every medium, including painting, drawing, photography, sculpture, installation, video, and performance, linked only by place and by an engagement with the modern world. Over the next several weeks, we’ll be rolling out profiles of artists who appear in the exhibit. You can read the rest here.

Pablo Helguera’s installation pays tribute to one of the oldest living Americans: Susannah Mushatt Jones, a Brooklyn woman whose life has spanned three centuries. Born in 1899 to Alabama sharecroppers, Jones moved to New York in 1923. She is the oldest living resident of New York, the fourth-oldest person in the world, and one of only six living supercentenarians—people who have lived more than 110 years—born in the nineteenth century.

Helguera’s exhibit collects personal photographs and other artifacts from Ms. Jones’s past, such as her high school graduation photo, in a loving tribute to her extraordinary life. It’s a straightforward work, with an uncomplicated artistic motive.

“The impetus of this work was precisely to recognize her life—the incredible historical transformations that she witnessed in her lifetime, from the invention of television to other technological advances,” Helguera says. “Someone who can recall a period—say, the 1920s—that most people alive today didn’t live in person, is something that I find extraordinary. Just knowing she lived it is a powerful fact.” To further illustrate the cultural and technological changes that have occurred during Ms. Jones’s life, the Brooklyn Museum has also selected materials from its collection that date to the year of her birth.

For the last several years, Ms. Jones has been living at the Vandalia Senior Center in East New York. She has over 100 nieces and nephews. Helguera first met her in April, after contacting one of them. “I have been interested for some time in contacting people who are the last of their kind, whether last speakers of a language, or people who have had some unique experience,” Helguera says. “Recently I had been obsessed with supercentenarians. People these days live very long, but 110 continues to be an important threshold.”

Helguera was born in Mexico City in 1971 and moved to New York City after attending school at the Art Institute of Chicago. He works in installation, sculpture, photography, drawing, and performance, with themes that often engage with history and the objects of history. “Where I am from, my family has attachments to objects for centuries,” Helguera tells me. In a town called Lagos de Moreno, Helguera’s father’s family has a house that has belonged to them since the eighteenth century. There are clothes in its closets from the 1860s. Family heirlooms like books, records, photographs, and personal mementos were common. “These objects often became alive for me when I was a child,” Helguera says. “This is perhaps why I respond so strongly to history, and to the objects of history. To me they are alive, breathing reality.”

All lives are history’s containers, but few lives contain as much as Susannah Mushatt Jones’s. She is one of the only remaining bridges to a lived history of the nineteenth century, of a time that will soon be rendered only in ethnography and the other tools of historicization. “She is our contemporary, a Brooklyn neighbor, and also a living human link to two centuries ago,” Helguera says. “I don’t think we will experience that again anytime soon.”

Follow Phillip Pantuso on Twitter @phillippantuso.


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