Ayanna Dozier’s Cities of the Dead (2021) began with the artist’s predilection for cemeteries. Paired with her discovery of Solomon Riley’s vision for a “Negro Coney Island,” her work for Open Call reframes New York City’s Hart Island, located in the middle of the East River, and its largely unknown past as a potter’s field. A potter’s field is a graveyard for the “un-befriended,” or societally disgraced, those with no family to claim them. To add to this neglect is the history of mass graves and slave pits that dominated the South to ensure that Black people and white people weren’t buried in the same cemetery. When I met Dozier at her studio in downtown Brooklyn, she underscored this deep frustration with the fact that these separate burial tactics operated as “segregation at death.” However, in a radical reclamation for the living, Dozier charts the efforts of Riley, a wealthy Black man from Barbados, who purchased land on Hart Island and began to construct Negro Coney Island.
Envisioning the park as a place where Black people could enjoy themselves separately from white people, Riley completed the entire construction of the park, but his dream of giving his community a space unencumbered by racism was never actualized. Just days before the Negro Coney Island opened, the city interfered and forced Riley to shut it down. Debuting just a few years shy of what would have been the park’s 100th anniversary, Cities of the Dead imagines Riley, and his wife Elizabeth Riley, in the thrilling days and weeks leading up to the July 4, 1924, opening.
Dozier’s installation features an architectural design by Nina Cooke John and an 11-minute film (a longer version will also be available) called Solomon Riley: Negro Coney Island, in which the artist has formulated original monologues for Solomon and Elizabeth Riley (played by Ricky Goldman and Selamawit Worku, respectively), along with the infamous interior designer Harold Curtis Brown (Rayly Aquino) and cultural producers such as dancer and singer Florence Mills (Crackhead Barney), queer performer Jimmie Daniels (Moses Jeune), and famous Harlem photographer James Van der Zee (Terrance Livingston Jr.). Through deep and committed research into municipal records, local newspapers like the New York Amsterdam News, and multiple ferry rides to Hart Island, Dozier has revived Riley’s dream. Inspired by photographers Sara Moon and Lorna Simpson, Dozier’s images of Hart Island and portraits of each character were shot with the precision of a 90-year-old Kodak Ektar lens and printed on the distinct suppleness of expired Type 55 Polaroid film via its 665 counterpart.
The use of an actual technological relic manages to transport the audience to the early 20th century, when the Great Migration brought Black people and their families to Harlem—to find work that most often involved serving and tending to the needs of white people. Once Riley moved his family into Harlem from Barbados and faced the inevitability of racial conflict, he set his sights on bringing in more Black families. White families eventually moved out of the neighborhood and Riley, and with the help of his wife, a fair-skinned Black woman named Elizabeth, was able to negotiate and purchase several more properties.
The film included in Dozier’s installation certainly conjures the elements of this backstory from Dozier’s research but also from her lived experience. As a Black woman, scholar, and artist, Dozier approaches research as both provocation and excision; she considers her research process to involve more than the often-superficial fixations of representation, but a more immersive “representational analysis.” That is, a form of study that relies on ideas as an invitation to an often abstract and nonlinear approach to history. Dozier defines her work as “speculation from deep study as a praxis,” always upholding the question of “what else?” For the film, Dozier was unable to access conventionally preserved archives. Instead, she learned of Riley’s story from newspaper clippings, municipal records, and old Black newspapers which she found and that were dated from around the period.
One essential source was a script dated June 1936 called “Negro Millionaires: Solomon Riley,” written by Theodore Poston. The character of Solomon Riley is a wealthy landlord who owns a real estate company with his white wife. In the film, Dozier has zoomed into the text and highlighted specific areas in certain shots, offering the audience a glimpse of her research process while guiding us through the crucial details of Riley’s story.
Contemporary practitioners whose work is rooted within the diaspora recognize that the imagination is a resource for connecting with one’s history. Cities of the Dead is closely aligned with the archival fabulation of Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. For those of us who self-identify within constructs of diasporic identity, much of our history has been erased or was, simply, never recorded. Riley is responsible for much of what we’ve come to understand about Harlem today; Dozier is one of very few scholars who has expounded on her findings on Riley and his real estate advances in Harlem or on Hart Island, mainly because the little writing that has been done about him is extremely difficult to find.
Thinking about the Rileys, I am reminded of Lorraine Hansberry’s father, Carl Hansberry, who also had dreams of creating housing security for Black people in Chicago. After several discouraging attempts with Chicago real estate, Hansberry’s father left for Mexico, seeking a new frontier for his family and community before dying of a brain aneurysm. The grief he bore devastated him in body and in spirit, an indication of the maddening stasis of racial trauma. Riley, who was known for his gregarious and energetic personality, declined rapidly from what one could only assume to be the sorrowful consequences of a dream deferred. When describing Riley’s intentional proprietorship of Harlem in favor of Black people, Dozier’s character Solomon Riley insists, in his well-honed New York accent, “I bought peace.”
During my visit to Dozier’s studio, the afternoon was electric—with more people milling around as the sunnier weather had grown more consistent and more communities had gained access to Covid-19 vaccines. With over 600,000 people dead from Covid-19 in the United States—a sweeping toll most deeply apparent in Black and brown communities—we cannot ignore the effects such a disparity has caused our bodies as we return to life in this fraught reality. As Dozier shared images from her trips on the ferry to Hart Island, she paused at one of the final stills. Her camera had been fixed on its focal point, the island, but she suddenly decided that it was also important to turn around. This image, facing away from Hart Island, demonstrates the potential vista for a visitor to Negro Coney Island, an undeniable framing for Cities of the Dead. Viewers will see from their perspective a burnished and brilliant horizon, not too far in the distance.