Back in the days when Newark was a place suburbanites drove through with their windows up and their doors locked, the Gateway Center—four monolithic corporate buildings tethered to Newark Penn Station—was considered a kind of bunker.
“The narrative around why these buildings exist is that the city needed to build some place to keep corporate types safe after the riots happened,” says Jasmine Wahi, cofounder of the Gateway Project Spaces, an arts center that occupies 30,000 square feet in Gateway Two, built in the early 1970s. “This place was considered a kind of castle that was for non-Newarkers.”
The Gateway Project’s mission was never to undo that narrative, but it’s helping just the same. Since 2015, when Wahi and her partner in the project, Rebecca Jampol, turned what was once an architectural firm’s office in the belly of the building into an exhibition space (the Project for Empty Space gallery) and an artists’ residency program with 56 rentable studio spaces, they have brought thousands of art lovers into Gateway Two.
They come for events like “States of Incarceration,” a traveling exhibition that explores mass incarceration in the United States, but with a local angle. One part of the show, on view through December 15, presents work created by former detainees at Elizabeth Detention Center, a private facility operated by Esmor and contracted by INS for undocumented immigrants. In 2007, 10 Somali asylum seekers successfully sued Esmor for inhumane treatment. Works in the show speak to the suffering they lived through in Elizabeth. Pieces are made of materials like candy wrappers, toilet paper and other scraps of trash, the only objects available to them while they were held captive.
Visitors also come to express themselves. In January, Wahi, of Brooklyn, and Jampol, who lives in Newark, launched Grab Back, an ongoing series of artistic happenings focused on women’s empowerment (with a wink at President Trump’s self-confessed penchant for grabbing a certain part of the female anatomy). One such happening is an artist-led knitting circle. Another is the reading and discussion of literature by authors, including Roxane Gay and Toni Morrison, in a feminist reading lounge behind the exhibition space. A third is what Wahi and Jampol call the Pussy Polaroid Project—which is way less racy than it sounds.
“We have Polaroid shots of more than 100 people, just from the general public, who’ve come in to answer questions like, ‘My feminist moment was when…, ’ or, ‘I was the victim of gender-based violence when…,’” says Jampol, who teaches design at Rutgers Newark and graduated from there in 2008. “The responses so far have been incredibly moving,” says Wahi, a professor at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. “Ultimately, we’re going to aggregate them and do something with them.”
For now, their mission is to further develop Gateway Project Spaces as an arts center that encourages the thoughtful discussion of social issues. It’s no small endeavor.
“We feel like art wives,” says Jampol. “We talk to each other all day and we have no social lives. But we have no regrets.”