Arismendy Feliz used to hold monthly reading workshops at a struggling middle school in the South Bronx. It was not the students, but the parents — many of them Latin-American or West African immigrants — who needed help with the ABC’s.
Those lessons inspired Mr. Feliz, a social worker-turned-community advocate, to mount an art show in the South Bronx this month that highlights the importance of words in a borough where many lack basic literacy skills. Called “New Word Order,” the show consists of 26 pieces — photographs, paintings, collages — each symbolizing a letter of the alphabet.
The show is the latest effort by Mr. Feliz, 29, and four longtime friends to document the Bronx they grew up in and still live in, scars and all, using their passion for art to put a human face on the borough’s problems, including low achievement, drug addiction, homophobia, domestic violence and obesity. “You have people here who want a better life,” Mr. Feliz said. “But at the same time, we’re plagued with our own internal problems.”
The five have named themselves the X Collective — X being shorthand for the Bronx as well as the traditional mark left by the illiterate. They set up a gallery in 2011 in the basement of a co-op building in the Mount Eden neighborhood where Mr. Feliz is on the board (he persuaded the building to donate the space). Their shows, advertised on Facebook and through word of mouth, have attracted a loyal following that includes young Bronx professionals, Williamsburg art-scene types, and curious neighbors.
The reception has sometimes been mixed. One recent show sought to convey a message of tolerance in a borough with a strong Christian tradition but an increasingly diverse mix of religions. Instead, it drew complaints because actual Bible pages were used to cover the walls.
In the current show, the bleakest works belonged to Charly Dominguez, 32, a mixed-media artist who said he left home at 14 because his traditional Dominican family could not accept that he was gay. He dropped out of school to work odd jobs, struggling with poverty and discrimination. “My sexual orientation has been one of my biggest crosses to bear in the Bronx,” he said.
One collage showed Mr. Dominguez’s head, with angry red lines exploding from it. The work symbolized the letter Y, or as Mr. Dominguez put it, “Why must I be here?” Nearby, an acrylic painting interpreted the letter S with a suicide theme: a solitary figure with slit wrists dripping blood under a tree of life.
On another wall, Marcos Cruz hung a self-portrait for the letter I, in which he faced away from the camera. Mr. Cruz, 24, said that he was self-conscious about his appearance after years of being overweight like many teenagers in the Bronx. Every day after school, he said, he used to hang out at his father’s bodega, snacking on chips and soda.
The letter A belonged to Brittany Maldonado, 25, who took a photo portrait of her 84-year-old great-grandmother, who moved to the Bronx from Puerto Rico, to represent ancestry, and aging. Ms. Maldonado, who attended the Dalton School on the Upper East Side on full scholarship and then Sarah Lawrence College, said she often felt like an outsider when she told people she was from the Bronx.
“Everyone’s like, ‘You live in Guam,’” she recalled. “I’m like, ‘No, it’s a train ride. It’s right there.’”
Mr. Feliz said that he saw the collective’s art as a form of community activism to reach people who might be too intimidated to attend a reading workshop or a meeting, or dial a number on a flier.
“There are a million artists doing exhibits about nothing,” Ms. Maldonado said. “We aim to have exhibits that have meaning, stir up conversation, and force people to ask questions that make them uncomfortable — as opposed to ‘We’re so talented, look at us.’”
“New Word Order” is in the basement gallery at 221 East 173rd Street through the end of February and can be viewed by appointment only, via [email protected].