Sanctuary: Exploring Artist’s Work Spaces in Brooklyn

Essay and Photography by Gregory Harris

Photographer Gregory Harris gives us a window into Ryan Davis, Massah Fofana, and RaFia Santana‘s work spaces and how they’ve made their own Brooklyn sanctuaries during this turbulent year.

By some measures, New York City is the most widely-known urban space in our history. No other city has been so widely seen in cinema, the powerful visual technology barely 100 years old—this in addition to the presence of news media in this city, home to CBS & NBC, once amongst the only networks available nationally, and now also to ABC and Fox News. As much as this space has been referenced in arts in the U.S., this city has also had great influence in shaping the popular American identity itself.

Many of the city’s recent creative histories in the street photography of the 40s and 50s, jazz in the 60s, independent cinema and theater 70s, early dance spaces downtown and on the west side along with visual art into the 80s—which have surely all been romanticized—still, were connected by small-business locality in spaces that were more accessible, if nothing else for the affordability of housing for residents in non-financial, non-speculative professions.

This culture, that of the New Yorker, was far from perfect. National issues were present in this urban space just as they were in other cities around the country, though the density of this space and the multi-national identities of its residents, cultivated a creative environment unique to this place.

The 90s showed NYC in a casual, human light with a volume of independent cinema (supporting lesser known performance talent and craftspeople) and popular national programs like Living Single and Seinfeld. Soon after would arrive ​false depictions​ of all-white casts in New York City settings, often featuring characters with no origin in the city itself, or a background that is unexplored, thus allowing writers without the lived experience of that urban space to wipe their own hands free from the responsibility of telling stories in it. People who view these programs may understand those places as shown to be true, and in their seeking that all-white experience, act as neocolonizers validated by other fans of said programming and those with careers in exploitative, extractive, and speculative industries, discouraged from discussion critical of capitalism and its intertwined forms of institutional oppression.

The 2010s saw that popular narrative shifting focus to Brooklyn, a space different from that of the evolving atmosphere of the big city across the river, and filled with nearly 3 million stories of its own. Longtime residents of Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, and BedStuy mention how quickly their neighborhoods, with ​rich histories of Black peoples and artists​, have been affected by this reselling of their place (and culture) to those who may lack concern for the well-being of their neighbor. Many artists inspired by traditions of revolutionary creators faced a housing market suffocated by ​monied real estate interests​ and propped up by short-term rentals for non-local tourists. This all reinforced by a ​media narrative​ which presented images of Brooklyn often featuring ​white people in all white settings​. One might say that the creators of the programs are themselves active in the colonization of the city as evident by the homogenous terms that are “Friends” and “Girls,” as if either present a standard or ​norm​, not unlike the concept of a suburb itself. The late idea of generalism or minimalism has a contemporary function of hiding information and protecting the private identity of the “owner,” ​as defined​ by architect David Adjaye. This apex was reached with the construction of Hudson Yards in Manhattan, a publicly-subsidized, private enclave (read: suburb), with an ​empty Vessel​ of a centerpiece.
That rich, dense culture shared by so many New Yorkers of last century has since been challenged by shopping mall chains and doormen in suits willing to prove their worth to the tenants they serve. Police and surveillance have encouraged a privatized, suburban experience in what was long understood to be an urban space.

One thing that’s offered hope for myself is to remember big real estate interest is ​not necessarily local​ to New York City; and while the greater metropolitan area may be “home” to more billionaires than anywhere else, they still remain <0.1% of the city’s population. These colonizing pressures come from the powerful few, not the working majority.

Massah Fofana
RaFia Santana
Ryan Davis

Brooklyn is home to many souls who have adapted and shapeshifted, who continue to grow and be alive in the city both a part of its history and creating it anew. Massah Fofana, RaFia Santana, and Ryan Davis are three artists living in Brooklyn who share infinite threads with this place, the African diaspora, and anyone on the journey through self-discovery and beyond—across seas and back on their own terms. As tough a city as New York, these artists have maintained a space for their person as so connected to their work.

Massah and Ryan both live in Flatbush, a neighborhood ​tied to the West Indies​ unlike anywhere else outside the islands themselves. This space is championed by residents who have pride in the community they share, and a consciousness of its history.

Massah, though born in the states, was herself raised in Jamaica until moving back to the Vanderveer Estates before high school. She studied fashion design at The New School, and uses her technique and ingenuity to communicate her own energy in work that is sensual and futuristic, an offering of love in this space and time. In this way, like her work teaching youth in local schools & programs, Massah actively cultivates the future of her world.

Until her mother’s recent passing, there were four generations present in her home—her son C.J and granddaughter both practicing artistry of their own.

Musician and multimedia artist RaFia Santana, born and raised in Brooklyn, works in the home she grew up in not far north of Flatbush in Clinton Hill. Also long a predominantly Black neighborhood, it’s at a creative and cultural intersection of the diaspora with neighboring Bedford-Stuyvesant and Prospect Heights, and often referenced as adjoined with Fort Greene. Spike Lee along with many ​hip-hop artists​ of the late 90s-2000s have shown this space on international platforms in culture and media, and there are a number of accomplished Black writers, musicians, visual & performing artists, and vocalists belonging to the neighborhood’s storied history. Beyond creative influences RaFia’s love for New York is deeply intertwined with that for her family, many of whom are in Brooklyn. And while she is curious about living elsewhere, it’s unlikely that it would be in this country.

Ryan Davis is a painter and printer from Cincinnati, Ohio, moving to New York City to surround himself with artists and creative industries, intently choosing Brooklyn. This wasn’t his first stop in New York, he lived in the Bronx for over a year after spending summers in the city during graduate school at Ohio University, along with pitstops in Harlem and upstate. The few years he’s spent now at home in Flatbush is now the most time he’s spent in one place since soon-after leaving home for university. He is adamant about meeting people in his community, introducing himself to local shop owners and residents and supporting local businesses more often than not. He ultimately understands his work as developing alongside his relationship with his audience, many of whom are neighbors.

Ryan recently completed a mural on Flatbush Avenue with collaborator Brittany Hayden, who also moved to Brooklyn in recent years. The work features imagery of a tropical bird spreading its wings, with influence derived from the creators’ experience in Flatbush.

For me, the mural is a gentle, gestural offering of respect and presence—indicating the balance between cultural love and proclamation of self, as so well practiced by New Yorkers.

ART SPACE

Studio artistry and physical practice requires a physical space in conjunction with one’s living space. Massah, RaFia and Ryan have each utilized their own space to maximize efficiency and best serve their craft.

RaFia’s parents are artists themselves, and her space is made whole with instruments from three generations. Though her father’s drums and late grandmother’s piano may not get as much play in her productions, that foundation of musicality persists, and is complemented by visual practice. RaFia first learned piano as a child before formally studying photography at Purchase College (her bedroom utilized by her mother as a darkroom until RaFia’s birth).

Her focus as a musician is also supported by her practice in graphic & 3D design; she creates gifs, stickers, posters, blankets, masks, and headwear—visual elements of her greater creative vision. One part of the space is dedicated to sonics, another setup for photographs, both connected by a workshop of a surface space dedicated to design and craft in progress.

The quietness of the space serves RaFia’s study; curiosity in Japan, the Jonestown Massacre, and recent histories more generally, all shining in the informed-pop presentation of her work. Beyond her personal narrative, RaFia’s impact extends to community care. During a previous national crisis, she facilitated a system called “pay-Black time” using her platform to get financial help to those needing it and raised nearly $10k in less than a year.” 

Ryan described his books, records, and plants as being most essential in his workspace, in an apartment that he shares with roommates. He keeps the texts nearby for reference in his own creative language, while the plants offer fulfilment in their own growth. While he may store some media required for printmaking, in his home, that aspect of his work largely happens in the basement of a collaborator in Crown Heights.

Masah’s space is complete with different projects of varying mediums and various points of progress. She described to me the parties her parents used to host, shuffling furniture away into one room to make space for guests, a kitchen full of homecooked goods and a bathtub lined with trash bags and filled with ice as the watering hole. The seasonal use of the space as an assembly line for carnival garments was a foundational practice of having a creative space that is both functional and livable—all one with family, tribe, and community.


In a walk down Flatbush Avenue, Mas and I pass the mural on Parkside of the colorful bird being guided into flight. Mas ran into the mother of one of her former students (not the only neighbor with whom we’d share a moment). The parent walked with us, eager to hear what was next for Massah, who informed her of plans to open a gallery space of her own in Brooklyn named ​Fofana Veer.​

With themes tied to feeling, the cosmos, and life itself; drawing from histories and the world around them, Massah, RaFia, and Ryan weave anew a holy tapestry of ancestral roots; continuing journeys that have spanned millenia, here and now in Brooklyn. Their exploration of mixed media, use of craft and creative language is so very reflexive of their love for the borough and city that they call home, with work as dimensional and enriching as the place itself.

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