A walk north: the Baobab Tree
Written by Bwog Staff
In which Bwog freelancer Armin Rosen stumbles upon the heart of Harlem.
Unlike its vegetative namesake, the Baobab Tree has an inconspicuous presence. The African art workshop, housed in a garage just north of 125th Street on Amsterdam, has been a local fixture since the early 70s, conducting art classes and events for the surrounding neighborhoods—but it doesn’t exactly seem to exist within those neighborhoods, or even within New York City. “Sometimes,” said Baobab founder and owner Phil Vilmar, “people miss appointments finding themselves in here and not wanting to leave. They sit in here looking. They‘re at peace.”
The Baobab’s dimly-lit, wall-to-wall collection of paintings, sculptures, drums and masks from all over Africa–so radically out of sync with the restaurants, traffic and apartment buildings that surround it—makes me feel like I stumbled upon something I wasn’t supposed to see. Yet I sense that it couldn’t exist anywhere other than between a nail salon and a clothing store on an otherwise-nondescript, uptown city block.
Like the Tree, Phil is focused on places and ideas that are happily incongruous with his hectic, modern surroundings. In a neighborhood that’s home to some of the greatest minds on earth, he’s an artist and a storyteller, exuding something that‘s strangely hard to find in a University setting: wisdom.
Phil says he began wearing nothing but hand-woven African clothes in the late 70s, after reflecting on the cooperation, energy and care that the production of a single garment required. In traditional African cultures, he explained to me, an outfit would take over four months to make. Today, a shirt takes him a matter of hours. He says that in these cultures, the beats of a drum circle (which he leads at the Baobab on Wednesday nights during parts of the year) are believed to be spiritually energizing and rejuvenating. “The drum circle is actually a way of life,” he says. “It’s like a vaccination, running through your veins.” And he says that the Baobab tree is itself a symbol of life and renewal. In an African village, the judges and elders would live closest to the great tree, which yielded medicine, shelter and food. “Inside are all of the treasures life has to offer,” says Phil. “Happiness, contentment, learning, creating.”
At right is Phil’s last painting, which he stopped working on after Reagan was elected president (he now mostly does carvings and clothing when he isn’t overseeing the Tree’s three artists in residence). In the center is a sign from a barber shop in Ghana.
The Baobab’s goal, Phil says, is to enable people to “live their tradition,” and to create a place where the “origin” and “real essence” of existence is not forgotten or taken for granted. “We’re moving away from a tangible situation to the virtual,” he observes, and it is its remarkable success in giving tangibility to traditional and spiritual ideas–ideas that are very distant from the anxieties of modern life–that make the Baobab such an extraordinary place. It is nowhere near New York or Amsterdam Avenue or South Harlem. But it’s a world that is just unreal enough to keep people grounded in the real one.
For Phil, that’s not a paradox. “People will be looking for a place on Lennox and find themselves here,” he says. “It’s very common. That’s one of the reasons we exist.”