The Best Things I Saw in Metro Phoenix in 2016

It’s all too tempting, when looking back on 2016, to say good riddance. We lost Prince and Bowie. We got Trump. By all sane accounts, it has been a pretty terrible year. But I’d be remiss to write it off as such. Especially when I saw so many good things in metro Phoenix. In no particular order, these were the best.

This year, Barry Jenkins released one of the most visually compelling films I’ve ever seen. He wrote and directed Moonlight, inspired by Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. In an oceanic blue palette, it follows Chiron, a boy growing up with pressures to blend into a hyper-masculine Miami culture that he doesn’t quite fit into. At first, anyway. Told in three parts, the film gives us glimpses at a distinct life, a clear perspective, and how Chiron grows from an emotionally exposed child to a guarded adult, cocooned by gold grills and an obsessively maintained physique. It feels redundant to write, but in a tumultuous year when people have been emboldened to argue otherwise, perhaps it isn’t: Black lives — and narratives — matter.

Phoenix General
When GROWop boutique owners Josh Hahn and Kenny Barrett opened Phoenix General in midtown, we were giddy. The boutique, with its broad window displays and perfectly picky inventory, is a high-end counterpart to their Roosevelt Row shop, a community center complete with a garden. But when GROWop suddenly shuttered in October — yet another casualty in the gentrification of downtown’s arts district — the shop became all the more necessary. With its gallery space, Shortcut, and regular collaborative events with neighboring Framed Ewe, and an in-house label of basics like T-shirts and tunics, it’s the perfect place for retail therapy in a rapidly changing city.

El Mac in Mesa
International street artist El Mac was no stranger to the Valley this year. The painter grew up here, and found himself in high demand at Mesa Arts Center, whose contemporary art museum exhibited a selection of his work and commissioned a two-story mural. The latter portrays Karen Bracamonte in Mac’s signature swirling lines. Eyes downcast and hands arranged for prayer, she holds a single long-stem rose in desaturated red over a pregnant belly. It’s a Southwestern Madonna if we’ve ever seen one, with a halo, painted by a longtime Mac collaborator, around her head, and the bottom of the column unpainted to form an arch.

Phoenix Zine Fest
Phoenix’s DIY scene felt in flux during 2016 — what with the closure of Trunk Space and the uncertain future of Wasted Ink Zine Distro. Though both the community-centric venue and the zine shop and library have since reopened in new locations, there was perhaps no event that proved that the Valley’s indie spirit is alive, well, and flourishing quite like the inaugural PHX Zine Fest. Held at the Icehouse (a building with ups and downs all its own) by Charissa Lucille, Marna Kay, and Brodie Hubbard, attendees were greeted by an open-air Hopi drumming performance and then directed to a room full of local and national vendors including Four Chambers, Amazing Arizona Comics, and Fem Static hawking their stapled pamphlets, perfect-bound chapbooks, visual art, buttons, and photography. It’s just the beginning, and we can’t wait to see what they do next.

Yet again, Dennita Sewell has offered up an exciting reason to visit Phoenix Art Museum. This fall, she debuted “Emphatics,” a survey of avant-garde fashions from 1963 to 2013. All the show’s materials — from the Jean Paul Gaultier dresses and elaborate fashion show invitations — come from a shuttered Pittsburgh boutique for which the exhibition is named. What’s on view is part of a 400-piece collection the museum acquired from Karin Legato, who co-owned Emphatics with her late husband, James. Their unintentional archives are educational, impressive in scope, and, as each and every item embodies avant-garde, exciting to behold.

Read on for more of 2016's best.
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Becky Bartkowski is an award-winning journalist and the arts and music editor at New Times, where she writes about art, fashion, and pop culture.
Contact: Becky Bartkowski