'We Need To Know Our Neighbor': Honoring The People Of East Austin With 'Where Is Here'

Jul 13, 2020

Last year, the folks at Northern-Southern gallery started a project called Where Is Here, which is both a document and celebration of the residents of East Austin. It’s a large exhibition of photographs, including portraits of eastside denizens from ages 0 to 100.

“It’s basically an ode to East Austin, to the people who live, work, or frequent East Austin,” says co-curator Keyheira Keys. “Just to pay homage to the past, the present, and the future of the community.  As it continues to change and evolve, it may look different but it’s still a community. And I think when we look at how rapidly the city’s building and changing that we have to be intentional about building community… and so that was what this exhibit was about.”

There were several photographers working on the project, with the bulk of the work done by Arius Holifield, Tyeschea West, and Father Bertie Pearson. “It’s just been really exciting hearing everyone’s stories and connecting in that way,” says Holifield. “Yeah, it’s been awesome.”

Photography isn’t Pearson’s only job – he’s also an Episcopal priest – but he says it’s been a lifelong passion. “I’ve lived in East Austin, went to school in East Austin,” Pearson says. “So when [co-curator Phillip Niemeyer] reached out to me about this project, for me it was really exciting to get to work side-by-side with other photographers and kind of see their vision [and] get to hear stories of folks from this neighborhood that I’ve seen change so radically over the last 35 years.”

West took many of the photographs in Where Is Here, including one that was very special to her. “I actually got the honor to photograph the 100-year-old,” West says. “Her name is Miss Heartha and she was just so inviting. We went to her home and… I just felt like I was around a living, breathing history book.”

Holifield was also moved by photographing some of the elder residents of East Austin. “My favorite was going to the senior citizens activity center,” he says. “I loved that experience. We were invited into their space to talk to them about the photos on their walls and how they’re connected. It was just really nice and humbling.”

Keys says she hopes Where Is Here helps to remind people of the value of community. “As East Austin continues to change and evolve, we need to know our neighbor,” she says. “And I think that’s kind of what [Where Is Here] was for me – seeing the humanity in people.”

Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic forced Northern-Southern to close its doors, meaning that it’s not currently possible to go to the gallery to view the photographs in person. But the gallery staff pivoted and has found new ways to share the exhibit with the people of Austin. It’s viewable on their website, where you’ll also find a video version of the exhibition set to a trumpet solo by East Austin jazz legend Kenny Dorham.

You can also get your hands on a physical copy of Where Is Here this week, as the entire exhibit will be printed in the July 16 copy of the Austin Chronicle, which will be available free at stores all over town. That’s a move that co-creator Niemeyer is particularly excited about. In a recent email he sent informing me of the news, he wrote, “No phone needed. Don't have to go anywhere special. Art for all the people going to where they are. Got to love that.”

'Where Is Here' is viewable at the Northern-Southern website and will also be printed in full in the July 16 edition of the Austin Chronicle, available at stores all over the Austin area.