Aya Brown
Black women: you are essential, we love you, we see you

February 12, 2021 – March 14, 2021

For 30 days, Aya Brown’s portraits of Black women essential workers will populate bus stops throughout Brooklyn.

The intimate drawings, originally done with colored pencil on 9-by-12-inch brown Kraft paper (its commercial value in its elasticity and resistance to tearing), have always been situated purposefully outside of white cube spaces, instead debuting in the public domain — Instagram stories and posts, New York Magazine’s Approval Matrix, the Brooklyn Public Library facade, subway kiosks, and now, nine bus stops.

Brown, 25, is deliberate in this act of locating. The bus stop is not a neutral site. The history of New York City’s bus system is fraught with years of decentralization and mismanagement. When Cuomo declared a state of emergency for the transit system in 2017, some buses had an average speed of four miles per hour and labyrinthine routes leading to unreliable service and intolerable delays in the areas most dependent on them. A lot hasn’t changed in the almost four years that have passed, except that maybe ridership, after a steady decline, is up because of Covid-19. And there’s the looming threat of the fare increase. Oftentimes, the bus is the only option, especially as the boroughs extend out. So, naturally those who bear the brunt of the neglect of the transit system’s leadership are its most frequent riders. This transient space, the bus stop, patronized routinely by the very subjects of Brown’s works as a critical part of their daily commute, thus becomes a place where time is spent.

Where time is spent reading or chatting or eating or planning or scrolling as they start or end their day shoulder-to-shoulder with art made by a Brooklyn native who “grew up coloring in the house.” The ease of the site is an important part of Brown’s precise equation to champion Black women emphatically. Full stop. It is a sort of reflective, centralizing gaze that Brown is able to achieve, the viewer seeing their counterpart in the subjects of the works in the very areas they already pass through.

For Brown, however, it’s more than simple portraiture. It is a willful act to acknowledge the women who, day in and day out, risk their lives and the lives of their loved ones to save ours or to handle our incessant packages or to sanitize our buildings clean, and to give them their overdue recognition. The short-lived 7 o’clock clapping ain’t enough.

The series, which began before the global pandemic fast tracked an economic recession, mass unemployment and a civil crisis to its brink, started with a portrait constructed from memories of the pediatric nurses who took care of Brown and her sister as they grew older. A couple dozen later, it has expanded to friends, family members, neighbors and neighborhood regulars whose jobs stretch from MTA transit workers to NYCHA maintenance workers to beauty store owners. Many of the subjects in these works are people Brown knows deeply, who she was seeing exclusively when the state- and city-mandated quarantine went into effect. Others, she sat with, for hours once restrictions were lifted, to ask about their lives, to extend her gratitude, and then naturally, to take their photograph for a drawing.

It is an elevated approach to portraiture in process, in subject and in material, and then, of course, in exhibition.

About the Artist

Aya Brown (b. 1995, Brooklyn, NY) documents her lived experience as a Black woman and centers the history of Black lesbian women in an active celebration of all their unyielding magnificence, all of their strength, all of their softness. Her drawings and paintings on brown surfaces refuse whiteness as a standard and starting point. These works challenge what is seen and unseen and empower blackness and queerness in its labor, representation, visibility by expanding the form and forum they are presented within. Aya’s intimate collaboration with the subjects of her work radically holds space for the sovereign reclamation of each subject’s image and selfhood and positions Black women as the primary ‘essential workers‘ that, with all they do, carry, love, and create, make the world work. Aya’s work has been shown this year by the Brooklyn Public Library, the MTA in collaboration with Artsy and Outlook and featured in Artsy, Cultured, The New York Times, and Vogue.

All artworks courtesy the artist, Aya Brown

Organized by Public Domain

Text by Courtney Willis Blair

Printed matter designed by Megan Tatem

Image credits:

1. Aya Brown, “MIKEY” FIRE LIFE SAFETY ACCOUNT MANAGER, COVID-19, 2020. Mermaid Ave, between W 27th St & W 25th St, Brooklyn. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Nicholas Knight.

2. Aya Brown, “KEASHA & IEESHA” KINGSBOROUGH NYCHA WORKERS, COVID-19, 2020. St. Marks Ave, between Buffalo Ave & Ralph Ave, Brooklyn. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Nicholas Knight.

3. Aya Brown, “WENDY” CHILDCARE WORKER, COVID-19, 2020. Livingston St, between Court St & Boerum Pl, Brooklyn. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Nicholas Knight.

4. Aya Brown, “BRITTNEY” OB/GYN SONOGRAPHER, COVID-19, 2020. Ave D & Nostrand Ave, Brooklyn. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Nicholas Knight.

5. Aya Brown, NURSE 3, COVID-19, 2020. Glenwood Rd, between Flatbush Ave & Nostrand Ave, Brooklyn. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Nicholas Knight.

6. Aya Brown, HOSPITAL HOUSEKEEPER, COVID-19, 2020. 98th St & Lott Ave, Brooklyn. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Nicholas Knight.

7. Aya Brown, “KEYANNA” EMT, COVID-19, 2020. New York Ave & Clarkson Ave, Brooklyn. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Nicholas Knight.

8. Aya Brown, ”RIP MOLLY WILLIAMS”, COVID-19, 2020. Broadway, between Gerry St & Leonard St, Brooklyn. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Nicholas Knight.

9. Aya Brown, BEAUTY SUPPLY WORKER, COVID-19, 2020. Gates Ave, between Styvesant Ave & Lewis Ave, Brooklyn. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Nicholas Knight.