The Bronx is one of the most vibrant boroughs in New York, but its thriving art scene is largely overlooked. The mainstream New York art scene, centered in Chelsea and Lower Manhattan, eclipses other areas of the city, including the Bronx. This isn’t a reflection of a lack of important art, but of a lack of media coverage. Artists in the Bronx are constantly taking control of their own narrative in artistic media as diverse as their own borough.
Bronx born-and-raised artist Annie Legnini’s textured portraits capture the energy, motion, and flow of her subjects in a personal way that transcends traditional portraiture — or a sound bite on the nightly news. With her project “Bronx Faces,” Legnini has conversations with Bronx residents and creates their likeness using recycled materials, like cardboard, wire, foil, beads, and Pokemon cards, to name a few. While the portraits are uncanny, her focus is always on capturing the lived stories of the Bronx through residents’ own eyes, and with their own voices.
Check out my conversation with Annie Legnini about the Bronx art scene, Dragon Ball Z, artists’ responsibilities as storytellers, and more below:
How did the goal of “Bronx Faces” grow and develop?
When I went to Fordham [University], I constantly felt myself defending the Bronx to the students there. Most of them go to school there and don’t know anything about the area. One summer, I wanted to take a step back and challenge myself too: how much of the Bronx do I know outside of Morris Park and Arthur Avenue, the places I grew up? I was encouraging others to explore, so I did it myself — it started with asking a few of my friends about their favorite places in the Bronx, not just food spots, but places where they had meaningful and personal experiences. After hearing their stories, I saw that this can absolutely be a project that benefits everyone and that this is something to be shared.
How does the process work for “Bronx Faces” applicants?
I put an open call on Instagram and Facebook, and got huge waves of submissions. Everyone who submits to the project gets a portrait. I don’t always meet with people in person before making their portrait, or at all. I ask that people give two or three pictures of themselves, how you look on a daily basis, no prom, no wedding, just you. I ask, which part of the Bronx they’re from, their favorite memory, food spot. I don’t do them in the order I recieve them— I do whichever one inspires me at the moment. One day I was looking through the submissions and when I saw Andreina’s picture, I was inspired to make her hair out of Q-Tips. I was looking at Shaira’s submission on another day and thought it would be dope to experiment with making her curls out of pokemon cards. I can do that. Or I can read the response, made me laugh and vibe. I try to make it really organic, it helps the creative process. I have people patiently waiting since 2016 for their portraits, it all depends on who I’m particularly inspired by on any given day. Painting portraits is a super intimate experience—and then meeting my participants after, I feel like I know them.
In the portraits, you used mixed media–how do you choose the materials for each portrait?
Bronx Faces is inherently collaborative. I think about their response as I create their work. I’ve actually asked people, do you want something specific in your portrait? One person said, “I want rolling papers.” It makes it better. Materials are different for every portrait. It’s easy if I already know the person, I can be like… “Yo, do you want something specific in your portrait.” Even if I don’t know them, I’ll extend the same offer. I met up with someone getting coffee, and I asked, what do you want. He said, “I’m constantly riding bikes, can you put bike tires?” He had long curly hair, and i was like yeah definitely! I could try to use cut up bike tires for hair!
I’ve been asking this question about materials more. I have to force myself to see these recycled materials, things that are disposable, in new ways, which kind of makes me a hoarder – because now I’m starting to see everything as fair game for my art! It pushes my creative energy. It forces me to see things in a new light. That’s what a portrait is — getting someone’s energy. I have no idea what it’s going to look like in the end. The process is important, and I figure it out on the way. I’m learning how to capture this person along the way. If I run out of materials, fuck it. That’s a part of it. Now I’m forced to think of other materials to use – and it may end up looking better than what I originally had planned! Ultimately, I try to have fun.
What do you think the artist’s role is in being an activist?
A lot of times, artists that try to create a political statement trip over themselves. But there are some artists that really get it. They put the needs and thoughts and voices, the people they’re advocating for in the forefront. That’s how I feel as an artist — I only want to be the middleman for what goes on in the world. I want to take the voices, the concerns of the community and the people, and translate that. Art is visually easy to digest, so it can reach a lot of people. I want to be a tool for that, but never speak over anyone. I constantly struggle with this as an artist. It’s hard, and there’s no one right way to do it. Any artist trying to be an activist needs to listen more than anything, be flexible and patient, receptive, open to criticism. And roll with that.
What do you love most about the Bronx art scene?
I’ve only started getting involved in it. I’m just getting my foot in the door. In the past year I’ve shown work with Hydropunk at their Bx Art Expo 2 and GNRTN.WHY at Uptown Baby, Uptown – these are two groups really putting work in and giving platforms to local voices and artists of all disciplines. I’m very conscious about which art spaces I try to be a part of. Art spaces pop up all the time in the Bronx, especially lately — who do I trust? Are these gentrifiers looking to use the Bronx as studio space and then leave? Are these legitimate places that are really looking out for artists who are from here? I try to keep this at the back of my head at all times and I question everything. But these DIY spaces like the ones I mentioned earlier are fucking vibrant and fierce, and talented as fuck to say the least. We make shit work. I was reading a Hydropunk post the other day and one thing really stood out to me: while we deserve beautiful gallery spaces we can make something from anything as well. I’m endlessly impressed and in love with everyone in the scene. I still have so much to learn.
I’m inspired by my friends. I was constantly inspired by what my friends are doing. What influences me most now is other artists around me. To name a few dope Bronx artists and groups and of all disciplines (some I know personally, others I just really admire!): Shaira Chaer, Chris Toro, Josh Ramos (all three of them are Bronx Faces!),The Bronx Brand, Rocio Cabrera, Kasinator Visuals, the Uptown Forever crew, Justin Mercado, Devon Rodriguez, Josh Dst — I’m leaving out so many incredible talents. These are just a handful of people that are doing their thing and inspire me to push myself.
Social media has connected with me with so many people. The artist doesn’t necessarily need the gallery anymore. We can promote ourselves, gain our own platforms! Instagram is free. This is true for musicians, artists, everyone. But especially anyone in the visual field. I’m seeing a lot of young artists make moves—we don’t need the MFA programs. It’s a much better point of entry. Selling work on Instagram, making income. It’s great, especially if you don’t have access to certain resources. Anyone can blow up on their own, just from social media.
What’s your creative process like? How do you like to work—with music, in silence, kind of space, etc?
There are times I can be posted up with Netflix, music going, and mindlessly fall into this world. I used to paint in my basement. I love it the most when my friends are around, drinking beer, smoking, we’re bullshitting but I’m still in that world. It’s cool to have a friend around, sometimes I force my friends to paint with me. I love that atmosphere. They’re not painters, but I love that collective feeling. I love when the creative energy is flowing.
What surprised you the most by doing this project and interviewing Bronx residents? What has been your favorite moment so far?
What I thought would be a lighthearted project in the beginning turned into much more. I tweaked one of the questions from “what is your favorite memory” to “what stands out the most to you from living in the Bronx”? A lot of my questions don’t reflect rainbow and sunshine, they ask for honest and thoughtful, real answers. They involve nasty truths. There are beautiful moments of hope and resilience. There’s this overwhelming sense of community. One submitter said they had someone following them and their friends one night, wouldn’t leave them alone, and man in their neighborhood let them stay with him. We look out for each other here. It’s beautiful to see that. We’re not only resilient—but back off, this is our home. We’re ready to defend that, which is cool.
Art forces you to do a double take. I don’t edit any of the responses — I want your voice to be present. If you use your own slang, a run on sentence, I keep that, go for it. The interpretations of the questions are always different, and two people can be a few years or a neighborhood apart, and have completely different things to say.
A lot of your work draws from pop culture and music. Desus and Mero portrait, Eric Andre— What vibes/aesthetics inspired your art style growing up? Whether it was a certain kind of music, TV shows, etc?
I grew up drawing Dragon Ball Z and Yuyu Hakusho characters. It was good practice. I’ve loved Prince my entire life—he’s influenced me in general, take craft seriously. He’s a renaissance man, can do everything. Artists in general—I went to Laguardia art school, and I got really into Frida Kahlo, Salvador Dali, Alex Grey—I was really into Adult Swim shit, I was so impressed by animation of Superjail in particular—there’s no structure to it, the characters could explode into a flower. There were no rules, and that forced me to push my work. I appreciate anything that breaks down what I thought I knew about art, as simple as that.
You just had your show opening for “Bronx Faces,” how did that go? What are you excited about/do you have planned?
I’m really focusing on “Bronx Faces,” but expect more collaborations with people.
“Bronx Faces” opened June 9th and is running until June 27th. It’s at the Huntington Free Library , which is a completely volunteer run space. Since it’s volunteer run, please check the library’s hours on www.BronxNYC.com before stopping by the exhibit! First 20 Bronx Faces done, 70 more to do! This is the first show of many, hopefully. It’s community based, it’s a collab.
It was really incredible meeting new people, reuniting with old friends, and seeing my participants next to their portraits! That always bugs me out to see the participant next to their art piece. I was also surprised to learn that a lot of people had not known much about the Huntington Free Library, so many visitors were able to learn about its history and future community events happening there. I was happy that we were able to provide free snacks, wine, and soda for everyone – so visitors were relaxed and just enjoying each other’s company. I hope that visitors were able to find themselves in a story and I also hope that they got the opportunity to see the Bronx from a new perspective. Huge shout out to Tom Casey, Sharon Casey, Anabel Moreno, and Nilka Martell for making this happen at the Huntington Free Library! Shout out to BronxNet for covering the opening reception and also for interviewing participants who were present at the event – so dope! Shout out to Kasey Rodriguez (Kasinator Visuals) for taking pictures of participants next to their portraits for the Bronx Times. Seeing so many Bronx based platforms, creatives, and community members in one space was powerful. I’m excited for the next future showing of Bronx Faces and getting everyone together again – next time we need music! Bronx based musicians and DJs – hit me up!