20 March 2024

By Any Means Necessary

Jordan Weber’s 4MX in
Omaha, Nebraska

 

by Amber Eve Anderson

Omaha, Nebraska, probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Malcolm X, but it is in fact his birthplace and now also the location of 4MX, a project by artist and activist Jordan Weber. Created in collaboration with the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation, 4MX is a greenhouse that sits on a sloping expanse behind the main visitor center. The work is situated directly across from a state historical marker and is designed to memorialize the house that once stood there, which was destroyed before the historical significance of the site was known.

Based on principles of self-reliance and self-determination, the sculpture is inspired by the phrase, “by any means necessary,” which Malcolm X popularized in speeches he gave during the civil rights era, calling for equality: “We want freedom by any means necessary. We want justice by any means necessary. We want equality by any means necessary.”

On a bright winter day, the structure sits mostly empty as water drips from melting icicles hanging off the front porch, sheets of snow cascading from the roof to the ground below. Wooden beams create a skeletal grid for the walls and roof which are constructed entirely in transparent, gray, corrugated plastic, almost as if the structure is a shadow of what once stood in the same location. Through the walls, you can see the surrounding landscape: a large field, blanketed in snow and fringed with trees. Past this, one reaches the Betty Shabazz Community Garden, named in honor of Malcolm X’s wife.

The location is layered in meaning, occupying space in the community of North Omaha, a historically Black neighborhood that was subject to redlining in the early 20th century and still experiences its lingering effects. Access to healthy food in the surrounding neighborhoods is an issue that the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation has sought to address since 2008, so when Weber approached them with the idea for 4MX, it was a welcome addition. In tandem with the community garden, a greenhouse posits that growing your own food is a means to freedom, justice, and equality—by any means necessary.

Liza Arellano, who served as the Second Vice President of the foundation for 11 years, worked with others to quantify the lack of access to healthy food and petitioned members of the organization to dedicate space for growing food. “My vision, and the vision that has been embraced, is that we would create a garden and eventually an edible landscape that would benefit the community,” Arellano says. “It would extend into the streets and backyards of the community to mitigate hunger and access to healthy food.”

For Weber, who was born and raised in the neighboring state of Iowa, the potential of the greenhouse extends to the greater landscape of the Midwest. “In Iowa we have less than 1% of Indigenous land left. The only thing you see when you look out the window–in a place that used to be predominantly prairie grass and wetland–is soy and corn,” he says in a short documentary made by A Blade of Grass Films. “Monocropping is extremely detrimental to the health of the body, to the health of the land, and the nutrients in the soil.”

The land where 4MX sits was also declared a Superfund site by the EPA in 1998 due to lead contamination in the soil from a former refinery plant. The cleanup effort covers 24 square miles, emanating along 24th Street, the main thoroughfare in North Omaha. 4MX is a means not only for social justice but for environmental justice, as well.

According to Arellano, once the structure was completed and assessed, it was determined that it would need to be fitted with proper ventilation in order to be used as a greenhouse. Finished in 2018, it has instead been used as a prayer and meditation space, a gathering place for private dinners, and a meeting space. The space has also provided a backdrop for large events, including demonstrations during the summer of 2020 and the Sol Food Festival, which focuses on wellness and food security. Remnants of these events are evident inside the greenhouse: a velvet rope, a table and chairs, a string of lights dangling from the ceiling. What makes a place significant if not the things that transpire there? Each of these activities, then–prayer, meditation, gathering–are also paths toward freedom, justice, and equality—by any means necessary.

Weber always knew that the community would use the greenhouse in whatever way they needed. “Building this structure and then passing it onto the community is vital to the success of the program,” the artist says. “It’s always been this collaborative process, which is what my practice is in general. It’s really in the hands of the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation and the community.” 4MX embodies ideals of empowerment, not only of the body, but of the mind and the spirit, as well. Whether a childhood home or a greenhouse, both are spaces for growth and reinvention. 

In a season of dormancy, the greenhouse becomes a vessel for all of the layered meanings of the land on which it sits. The empty structure, with its transparent walls and vaulted ceiling, is bright and calm. “My personal favorite experience in the piece has been sitting on its porch during a warm summer rain,” Arellano says. “To be in the peaceful energetics of the land during the rain and to be sheltered in the space [Weber] created is something I am in gratitude for,” she says.

Last month, the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation received a $20 million grant to fulfill plans to develop the land according to a master plan they created with an architectural firm years ago. The plans feature an outdoor amphitheater and a Cultural and Education Center. As a seminal project of Weber’s, he believes it still has the potential to meet the foundation’s core mission and programmatic goals. “The art, the food growing, the education; all of our actions are rooted in restoring the Black community through self-empowerment,” Arellano says, “and tapping into each other’s hearts and talents to contribute to a collective good.”

Explore more of Weber’s work on his website.

Photo by Amber Eve Anderson
Photo by Amber Eve Anderson

All images © Jordan Weber and the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation

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