Client: City of Houston, Mayors Office of Cultural Affairs and the Houston Health Department
Location: Houston , TX, United States
Completion date: 2023
Artwork budget: $260,000
Civic Art Program Manager / Commissioner
Houston Mayor's Office for Cultural Affairs
Bennie Flores Ansell
Project Management and Administration
Civic Art + Design Division
Houston Arts Alliance
Merge Studios, LLC
Zainob Amao and Mathew Usoro
“Alief Swarm” is a suspended installation made of 900 printed and laser-cut images of shoes made to resemble butterflies, arranged as if in flight, connecting the atrium to the park outdoors. Created by Filipino American artist, Bennie Flores Ansell, it tells the story of the most diverse neighborhood in the most diverse city in the United States. The shoe styles seen in the hanging artwork were voted on by Alief students and residents as what best represents Alief. In the artwork, one will see Converse High Tops, Nike Air Jordans, Vans, workman’s boots, and high heels.
Why call it The Alief Swarm? A swarm refers to a large group of bees emigrating to start a new colony. Like bees, any group of people can be considered a swarm emigrating and working together toward a shared goal. In The “Alief Swarm,” the shoe-butterflies represent all of the residents of Alief, swarming together to create an uplifting experience for visitors to the Alief Neighborhood Center.
“Alief Swarm” is housed in a new building that is the first of its kind, the new $60 million+ mixed-used neighborhood center merges three City of Houston facilities under one roof, creating a civic center at the heart of a redeveloped 38-acre active urban sports park. A new paradigm for providing City services to underserved communities, the building is designed to maximize shared resources between the Houston Health, Houston Parks and Recreation, and Houston Public Library departments for the benefit of the Alief Complete Community with a special focus on community engagement, neighborhood identity, and civic well-being.
“Alief Swarm” reflects the building’s use. Community involvement and ownership are large components of this artwork. Houston artist Bennie Flores Ansell engaged community groups of all ages and gathered online votes to select the shoes that were used to create the individual laser-cut printed dichroic plexiglass shoe-butterflies that connect this indoor piece to the facility's park space. This work is responsive to the goals of the City by adding remarkable public artwork to a historically underserved community.
In 2021, the Houston Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs (MOCA) announced its search for artists to develop three permanent, site-specific civic art commissions for the then-forthcoming Alief Neighborhood Center.
Through its contractor Houston Arts Alliance, MOCA released the opportunity to artists residing in the Greater Houston Area and oversaw a selection process that emphasized
community representation and deep community engagement.
Bennie Flores Ansell’s proposal for artwork took into consideration the community in which this work will be installed and through the creative process, Bennie hosted and participated in several outreach events to gather the community’s input on which shoes were most representative of the Alief community. The resulting artwork is one that celebrates the diversity of Alief’s residents and the community collaboration which advocated for a new civic center for the neighborhood.
MOCA’s announcement of artists awarded contracts to develop art commissions for the Alief Neighborhood Center was the first to take place after the public release of its first-ever Equity Review of Houston’s Civic Art Collection in 2020. The results of this collection survey showed devastating inequities in the history of Houston’s art-commissioning practices and for the lifetime of its Civic Art Program until 2020. Women of color especially proved to be the most underrepresented group in Houston’s collection per the city’s population demographics and at the time, had together created less than 2.5% of the artworks in Houston’s Civic Art Collection. Out of 677 objects in the Civic Art Collection in 2020, only 17 artworks were the work of BIPOC women. Through new leadership for its Civic Art Program, MOCA has since been able to establish a community-centric vision for commissioning artworks for Houston’s neighborhoods and has underscored new standards for equity and artist-support within the artist-selection processes for art commissions. The completion of Bennie Flores Ansell’s “Alief Swarm” artwork marks the first artwork to be created by a Filipino American artist for Houston’s now 809-object Civic Art Collection.