By ANNE COHEN
Under a makeshift tent on the top floor of the New York Aquarium, nearly 100 people gathered around a brightly lit pool filled with fish and stingrays, which projected a green glow onto the scene.
Up on stage, a poet named Felix Davelman read from his poem, “Walrus Songs,” first in English, then in Russian.
In the adjacent room, labeled by a red neon sign that read “Beautiful Things,” three reels ran in a continuous loop, one in color, two in black and white.
This was the opening night of the ArtOnBrighton Festival, a two day event aiming to celebrate Russian art and culture in Brighton Beach. The brainchild of Victoria Anesh, a program director at the Council of Jewish Emigres Community Organizations, the festival was designed to expand beyond the public’s notion of Brighton Beach as a place known for the mob, vodka and “Russian Dolls,” the new reality show à la “Jersey Shore” about young Brighton Beach residents that has many in the neighborhood seeing red.
“There’s not a lot of conversation about Russian immigrants yet,” said Anesh. “It’s like we only have one side of the story.”
ArtOnBrighton’s other goal is to make local art accessible to local residents, who would not necessarily venture to Chelsea or to other parts of Brooklyn to discover their own artists.
“It used to be that if you made it, you didn’t live here,” Anesh said.
The tagline for the event, “Weekend of Art, Beach and Borscht” shows it for what it is: An opportunity for the hidden artists of Brighton Beach to show a new side of the neighborhood.
The Council of Jewish Émigré Community Organizations, an umbrella organization that serves the Russian Jewish community of New York City, organized the event as part of their Blueprint Fellowship, a program that supports Russian-speaking Jewish artists ages 25 to 40 who want to develop projects that engage their community. The United Jews of America Federation gave a $10,000 micro-grant to the Blueprint Fellowship to fund the event.
When asked about the stereotypes that plagued her parents’ generation – and persist to this day, Irina Suponitskaya burst out into throaty laughter. “It’s just such an old fashioned thing to think it’s all mobsters and all that,” she gasped.
Anesh believes that this kind community-based activism promoting culture is something that has not existed in Brighton Beach in the past. “Most of the older generation came from the former Soviet Union. Community and leadership initiatives didn’t exist; it was in the hands of the government.”
According to the New York City Planning Department, more than 50 percent of Brighton Beach is foreign born, the majority being Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union who came to America in the late 1970s and 80s.
At the aquarium, a woman with a mohawk and cat-eye glasses walked around the crowded tent. Her name is Zhenya Pletchkina, and she was one of the artists participating in the show. She called ArtOnBrighton the culmination of a community-building exercise that has been going on for the past four or five years, bringing together Russian-speaking Jews with ties to the former Soviet Union. As a filmmaker, among other things, Pletchkina is grateful for the opportunity to share her work with her own neighbors.
“There have been several local artists who have been living here and making art and they’ve never had a place to show it,” she said.
This year, the art showcased in the festival was not for sale. “We could change that for next year but the idea was more showcasing the talent and showing the history,” Anesh explained.
Elena Friedman, who sported straight bangs and a striped sailor shirt, was a designer for the festival. After growing up in Siberia, Friedman moved to New York City where she lived for 12 years before moving to Austin, Texas, where she now lives. She came back to New York to participate in the event. For her, the event was not just an internal cultural celebration, but also an opportunity to bring people from the outside into the neighborhood. She believes that the problem is not just that people are ignorant of the goings on in Brighton Beach; it is that they are intimidated by the prospect of what seems like a closed community of Russians. “We want to show one of the neighborhoods that people wouldn’t go into by themselves,” she said.
Overall, Anesh is pleased with the turnout for her first year. She estimates that around 250 people attended the event over the course of the evening, which lasted from 7 to 11 p.m., in the pouring rain.
Anesh hopes to organize the festival again next year, but maybe in the height of the summer season, when traffic to South Brooklyn is higher. She also wants to develop a public relations campaign to bring in more people from all over the city, to make it a citywide event.
Anesh laughs when she thinks back on her social media campaign for the event, which she thought would fail. She had more than 200 people attending on Facebook. “Russian Jews don’t RSVP!” she said, proving that some stereotypes are still alive and well.
Anne Cohen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org