Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Mind over ‘Matters’

For eight years, Umbrage Editions, a high-end art book publisher, has called Manhattan home. This week, however, the operation is moving to Brooklyn’s most art-friendly neighborhood in order to expand into a gallery and take advantage of the borough’s culture hungry denizens.

“First and foremost, our publisher lives two blocks away,” said Temple Smith Richardson, Umbrage’s director of exhibitions. “So, we said, ‘Let’s open a gallery [on Front Street]!’ We have shows that are always on the move and are already set to be [installed], so it was natural for us to have a gallery. We publish three to six books a year, and all of those are ready to be in shows.”

Photographer Kadir van Lohuizen, “Sewa River, Sierra Leone” and the crowd at the opening of his show at 81 Front St. in DUMBO, Tuesday.

The space, which will be in the gallery-packed building at 111 Front St., won’t be ready until January, but Umbrage just couldn’t wait to sink its teeth into the ripe DUMBO art scene. This week, they opened a show called “Diamond Matters,” featuring the photographs of Kadir van Lohuizen, at 81 Front St. (It’s utilizing the raw space where graffiti superstar Shepard Fairey showed — and was stink bombed — this past summer).

Van Lohuizen told GO Brooklyn that the space was just right for the display of his haunting black and white images, which follow diamonds from the mines in Africa to retail spaces in New York and parties in London.

“I think the space is great,” he said. “It fits with the work because it’s fairly rough.”

Having worked as a photojournalist in the 1990s in Zaire, Sierra Leone and Angola, van Lohuizen had seen the effects of the diamond trade first hand, and in 2005, he went back to Africa to assess the situation under new peace agreements.

“I went back to see if things had changed, and they hadn’t,” said van Lohuizen. “I was quite shocked. There was an issue with the film ‘Blood Diamond’ and the industry said it was about the past, but this show is about what is happening today, which is still quite disturbing. The diamond industry says there are no conflict diamonds anymore, but if you go to the mines, every day there are people dying.”

The exhibition, which runs through Dec. 4, is an extension of the book of the same name published by Umbrage. It fits neatly into the publishing house’s oeuvre, which tends to tackle social and political issues — other books have focused on cancer, Vietnam War veterans and human rights activists worldwide — but “Diamond Matters” also has a strong local angle.

“The United States is the biggest outlet for diamonds in the world,” said van Lohuizen, “and there needs to be knowledge among consumers of what they’re buying. The photos in the exhibit follow the diamonds from the moment that they are found, through trade in African countries, going to India to be polished and in New York for retail. A diamond basically sees the whole world before it ends up in a ring.”

Should couples celebrating their engagement at the nearby River Cafe avoid stopping by? Not a chance.

“I’m not against diamonds,” van Lohuizen said. “They can serve the people, especially in Africa, who are living on incredible wealth but are extremely poor. Consumers play an important role; they can question jewelers about where diamonds are actually from and can buy fair trade diamonds. We can buy fair trade coffee; we know that the farmers share in profits. We should do that with diamonds as well. If the consumer just buys anything that’s available, it’s not going to happen.”

It’s this passion and cultural conversation that Umbrage intends to develop with its new DUMBO space.

“It’s going to be very exciting because there is photography everywhere here and the streets are teeming with activity,” Richardson said as she shooed away gawkers who were trying to come into Umbrage’s temporary gallery space before the opening of “Diamond Matters.” “It’s very lively.”