by Mary Alice Franklin, ArtsNews Editor
When Habirshaw Park became filled with litter during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Yonkers community gathered together to clean it. Artist Haifa Bint-Kadi was among them. “I wanted to be a part of that,” she said. Shortly after, twenty-five monarch butterfly mosaics appeared on the walls of the Center for the Urban River at Beczak.
Really Bint-Kadi’s efforts to enrich the City of Yonkers began four to five years earlier, one sidewalk crack at a time. Sidewalk Stories in Mosaic was a guerilla project, during which the artist filled unsightly sidewalk cracks with colorful mosaic tiles. The project has grown ever since.
Back at the entrance of the Beczak Center, in addition to the monarchs, Bint-Kadi is working on mosaics of local species, some of which are threatened in the area – a bee, butterfly, eel and blue crabs.
Much in the way in which these species were chosen for the Center’s entrance, the location of a mosaic, as well as its people, always dictate its subject. As the artist works, people often stop to observe, ask questions and make suggestions. Bint-Kadi obliges. She explains: “My work is informed by the people I interact with. I usually scout for sites, and then I search for the story. I talk with people and I also go through archives in the library for anything significant that used to be in that spot. Then those things determine what goes in that space.” Most of what Bint-Kadi does is grounded in what she calls “visual archiving,” a way to record people’s memories and lived experiences.
At one point, a man told Bint-Kadi that his was the first Mexican immigrant family in Yonkers. She created a mosaic of Talavera Mexican tiles outside of his neighborhood restaurant, Dos Marias.
Another time, someone asked the artist to address three large cracks by St. John’s Church in Getty Square. There was a large population of homeless people in the area, so the artist asked them directly what they wanted to see in those cracks. The overwhelming response was “Christmas.” According to Bint-Kadi, “it’s the time of year that makes [them] feel like they belong.” So, out came the mosaic Santa and holly tiles. The artist recalls this as one of her most memorable and impactful mosaic projects.
But Sidewalk Stories isn’t about accurately portraying one person or community’s entire story in a sidewalk crack. “It’s more about hearing their story, engaging with them and then creating a marker of that person’s experience. “
It takes time and care to tell these stories. For every mosaic, Bint-Kadi must first clean out the crack, clearing from it everything that has accumulated over the years. “This part of the process is disgusting,” she laughs, “but I do it.” Once she is down to the area’s basic soil and cement, the soil is prepped. To fill the space, she uses a particular mix of concrete that allows for flexibility. She explains: “As the old concrete around the mosaic freezes and thaws, it will apply pressure on the new concrete that I’ve poured. So there needs to be some give; otherwise, it would crack.”
Bint-Kadi is deliberate but open about her process. When people ask about it, she teaches them her process, “hoping that they’ll continue it in their neighborhood. She says: “That’s what I love about folk art – it’s about passing that tradition on.” However, for her part, Bint-Kadi wants to do more. She is looking to broaden the project’s reach beyond Yonkers, perhaps into Mount Vernon.
“Ultimately, when you see [one of my mosaics], you think ‘Someone cared enough to put something in that crack and make it beautiful.’ That experience of knowing that someone cared says something to the person who’s experiencing it… It’s important for us to do something [to show we] care about our community and show it some love.”
A version of this article first appeared in the September issue of ArtsNews, ArtsWestchester’s monthly publication. ArtsNewsis distributed throughout Westchester County. A digital copy is also available at artsw.org/artsnews.