Photo: Ted Degener

In the mid-1980s, an ark was being built on the highest ground in Newark. A massive, skeletal boat frame rose out of the Central Ward, constructed from salvaged debris from buildings abandoned after Newark’s 1967 Uprising. Kea Tawana’s ark loomed over the neighborhood, drawing both awe and ire from the rest of the city.

PCK Media producer Susan Wallner‘s new documentary Kea’s Ark tells the story of artist and self-taught engineer Kea Tawana, examining the legacy of her ark. In the 1980s, “Newark began to epitomize this sort of end-of-the-world situation,” urban historian and photographer Camilo José Vergara notes. “But an ark was something different.”

Kea Tawana building the ark

Kea Tawana building the ark. Photo: Billops-Hatch Archive

Though she originally meant it to be a functional boat, over time Kea developed different hopes for the ark. She was determined to see it to completion and perhaps build a public park or community center around it, often referring to it as a literal “museum of the city.” The ark was doomed, however, as Mayor Sharpe James and Newark’s city officials demanded it be destroyed. Despite national news coverage and a committee to save the ark, in the end Kea herself took it down, a starkly poetic act.

Images from Kea's Newark bundle.

Images from Kea’s Newark Album.

But Kea Tawana was more than the ark. Emma Wilcox, Director of Gallery Aferro, and Mark Krasovic, Associate Professor of History at Rutgers-Newark, worked together to research and explore the art and legacy Kea left behind after her death in 2016, putting together an exhibition that State of the Arts featured in 2016. Among the art and artifacts Kea left behind were stained glass windows, architectural drawings, maps, contact sheets, handmade furniture, delicate metal works, and, intriguingly, several cabinets full of organized bundles of papers, meticulously collaged together and organized. As Emma explains, “Each of these bundles is this amazing evocative combination of found photographs, paper ephemera, things that she collected that are of the time and place where she was… There’s probably thousands of images here and the order and the way that they’re arranged in each bundle is significant, both as autobiography of Kea, and as kind of cultural commentary going back many decades.”

Although her bundles offer autobiographical clues, Kea’s origins remain shrouded in mystery. Kea’s Ark follows what we know of her life, featuring interviews with those who saw both the construction and destruction of the ark. But the documentary also brings us to the present day, cementing her lasting influence. Susan spoke to contemporary artists working in Newark today, including sculptor Kevin Sampson, artist Willie Cole, and writer John Keene, who discussed the impact of Kea Tawana on their own lives and work.

 

[Update June 16, 2021] Kea’s Ark premiered on NJ PBS February 20, 2021. The documentary will be distributed nationally by American Public Television (APT) in 2022. For more information, visit keas-ark.com