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Issue 005 Winter 2023 Features

Abigail DeVille Illuminates the Majesty of her Hometown

For over a decade, the artist has studied buried Black American histories, infusing them with nuance and magic.

By Jasmin Hernandez

Abigail DeVille photographed by Flordalis Espinal, 2022.

On a sunny September afternoon, Abigail DeVille stands in the glass atrium at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, dressed head-to-toe in black with combat boots and a dark denim Yankees fitted.

The critically lauded installation artist and sculptor was just a few weeks shy of her first-ever institutional retrospective, Bronx Heavens, which opened in October at the museum. For over a decade, DeVille has closely studied buried Black American histories—their erasure and neglect—through galactic sculptures and phenomenal site-specific installations, using found materials and refuse.

“I like to think about our place within the cosmos or the stars. Breaking out of this smallness and the ways in which we’ve been forced to compartmentalize everything,” she shares thoughtfully. DeVille’s art pushes for liberation and expansive thought. Through urban sculptural interventions and immersive installations, she protects and reclaims lost Black narratives—whether placing smiling plaster casts of her face at her paternal grandfather’s childhood home in Harlem or honoring a centuries-old African burial ground in East Harlem through a debris-sourced sculptural homage.

Working at the nexus of forgotten Black American legacies, oppression, and displacement, DeVille interrogates liberty and justice. She questions who gets to be the beneficiaries of those freedoms and who has been denied them for centuries. In 2020, as a racial reckoning raged across America, compounded by a global pandemic and Trump’s polarizing politics, DeVille’s symbolic outdoor sculpture, Light of Freedom (2020), at Madison Square Park examined the country’s long-standing hypocrisy when it comes to Black liberation. The 13-feet-tall public artwork, a golden scaffold supporting a torch with a rusted bell and blue mannequin arms, emulated the Statue of Liberty’s actual hand, which was displayed in the same park from 1876 to 1882, as it sought funds for a pedestal. A commemorative nod to the 11 enslaved Angolans brought to New Amsterdam in 1626, Light of Freedom then traveled to the Momentary, a satellite of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, and the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC.

Abigail DeVille: Bronx Heavens, The Bronx Museum of the Arts, The Bronx, NY, 2022, photo by Argenis Apolinario, courtesy of The Bronx Museum.

With New York close to her heart, the Bronx, in particular, has served as a spiritual, ancestral, and physical home for DeVille. The borough nourished her career in 2013 when she participated in the Bronx Museum’s AIM fellowship. Now, nearly a decade later, Bronx Heavens, curated by Eileen Jeng Lynch, is DeVille’s nostalgic and cosmic ode to her hometown. When asked about memorializing the Bronx, she marinated on the research and her intent.

“I was thinking about this place and its 120-year history [. . .] being a refuge for people from all over the Earth, getting run out of wherever they’re from, and coming here, settling, and starting a new life,” she explains. “But [I was] also thinking about our place within the heavens—five percent of our bodies are made of stardust—and thinking about the largeness and smallness of our lives simultaneously, and the hopes and dreams of our ancestors, coming here and building new lives.”

Bronx Heavens brims with magic, myths, and multiple histories—about the Bronx and the artist’s own family. “The whole experience of being from here is like a kaleidoscope,” she says. DeVille has referenced fundamental Black writers for past exhibits: Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin, and Langston Hughes. However, for Bronx Heavens, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s writings were a source. DeVille also reflected on historian Evelyn Gonzalez’s book The Bronx, which cycles through the borough’s 124-year urban, economic, political, and cultural development.

Abigail DeVille photographed by Flordalis Espinal, 2022.

Raised on Knox Place in the Mosholu Parkway area, DeVille’s New York roots run deep in the Bronx and Harlem. Her mother, an Afro-Dominican immigrant from Santo Domingo, immigrated to Harlem in the early 1960s. She later met DeVille’s Black American father, who grew up in the Marble Hill section of the Bronx. Together, they raised the artist and her two siblings. For DeVille, conjuring up early fond memories of her beloved borough instantly produces joy. Speaking on her earliest recollections of childhood, she laughs as she recounts visits to the Bronx Zoo. “Those are probably the earliest [memories],” she reveals. “Feeding the ducks at Van Cortlandt Park; Kentucky Fried Chicken on a park bench, cream soda, Wonder Bread, and the ducks.”

But long before these early Bronx beginnings, DeVille’s familial roots in New York started with her paternal grandparents in Harlem. DeVille’s paternal grandfather was born in a boarding house on West 131st Street in 1930, adopted and raised by the DeVilles. Meanwhile, her grandmother’s family left Richmond, Virginia, during the Great Migration in the 1930s and ’40s, settling in Harlem. It was there that the couple met as neighbors, living across from one another on the same street. This solidified New York as their home. Bronx Heavens is a familial love letter composed by DeVille to her late paternal grandmother, a light and force in the artist’s life. “My African American grandmother died ten years ago, and that’s the part of the family that I grew up with the most. And so, I feel really connected to that specific experience, but I wanted to make something in homage to the housing project that [several generations of my family] lived in for 50 years,” DeVille notes. The artist lived with her grandmother at her Marble Hill Houses apartment for “five interrupted years” after graduating with a BFA from the Fashion Institute of Technology, and again following her MFA from Yale.

Abigail DeVille: Bronx Heavens, The Bronx Museum of the Arts, The Bronx, NY, 2022, photo by Argenis Apolinario, courtesy of The Bronx Museum.

DeVille’s passion for amassing objects is part of the ancestral rituals passed down by her grandmother. “She really is the one who taught me about material, just in her day-to-day living and how she treated things. There was no hierarchy between the kinds of things that she collected,” she explains. “Her neighbors would come by and ask her if she wanted something before they threw it out, and she would always say, ‘Yes!’”

DeVille likens her grandmother’s apartment to a museum for her neighbors and the artist herself. “[That] was the first time I was able to examine a life or look at the example of somebody’s life and think about the benchmarks they lived through,” she says. Bronx Heavens comprises a robust array of works from 2009 to the present, including family mementos and salvaged materials sourced directly from DeVille’s various worlds. “So, the reservoir, the kind of encyclopedia material that I have, is really kind of Bronx-slash-New York-specific and family-specific,” she explains. Trash and discarded objects serve as artifacts that reveal how communities lived and survived, which DeVille re-purposes to unearth cultural invisibilities and her personal histories.

Abigail DeVille: Bronx Heavens, The Bronx Museum of the Arts, The Bronx, NY, 2022, photo by Argenis Apolinario, courtesy of The Bronx Museum.

Abigail DeVille: Bronx Heavens, The Bronx Museum of the Arts, The Bronx, NY, 2022, photo by Argenis Apolinario, courtesy of The Bronx Museum.

Stepping into the Bronx Museum in early October, on the opening night of Bronx Heavens, felt like a dreamy and celestial experience. The lobby and North Gallery resembled a fantastical portal into urban Afro-Futurist realms. DeVille radiated in a tiger print dress and coppery, pinkish curls, also celebrating a birthday.

An immediate stand-out work is Lunar Capsule (2022), an interactive space vessel in the museum’s lobby that records visitors’ oral histories. Chrome and triangular, visitors can step inside and share anecdotal responses to universal prompts: How many days have you been on Earth? What is your most cherished memory? Cosmos Gate (2022), an installation of vintage television sets, flashing images, and found footage of decades of local Bronx stories, is installed nearby, with one screen detailing retro electronics for sale on Boston Road.

In the North Gallery, the artworks get profoundly personal. In Untitled (Cigarettes) (2009), her late grandmother’s cigarette butts are plastered on a weathered canvas. Another mixed media sculpture, Mirror, Mirror… (2011), consists of a cracked mirror, vodka bottles, and broken glass shards, encouraging us to take a long hard look at ourselves and face any demons. One striking mixed media collage work, La Loge Harlem (2017), combines Impressionist style art, old shoes, crushed mirror bits, and faded historical photographs of Black life.

Abigail DeVille photographed by Flordalis Espinal, 2022.

DeVille’s fidelity to her family continues in a concurrent solo exhibit, Original Night, which also opened in October at New York’s Eric Firestone Gallery. The artist presented a planetary selection of assemblage paintings and sculptures, both political and potent. In Burgundy (2022), a tattered American flag, hammers, splattered paints, dyed burlap, Tyvek, and masonite all seem to combust and collide on the canvas. The otherworldly works were in dialogue with poetry written by her Dominican maternal grandfather, Francisco Antonio Cruz. His poem, “Original Night,” from which the exhibition gets its name, appears in his tome, Los Testamentos Infinitos 1970–1976. In his poetry, Cruz ponders the enigma of the universe and the Genesis creation story. As seen in Twilight and Infinite Skies (both 2022)—assemblage works saturated in cobalt blue, with Black dolls and women figurines—his granddaughter continues that exploration through a lens of Black womanhood.

In either setting, DeVille’s artistry is as thrilling and transportive as ever. Her works offer a Black visual odyssey anchored by the historical, the imaginative, and the expansive. With Bronx Heavens, DeVille marks a homecoming, inviting viewers to bear witness to the majesty of her cherished borough.