Crown Heights Riot 20 Years Later: Crown Heights Gold
In “Crown Heights Gold,” an exhibition marking the anniversary of the Crown Heights riot, which began August 19, 1991, 23 artists grapple with its meaning and legacy.
On one wall of “Crown Heights Gold,” an exhibition by 23 artists marking the 20th anniversary of the Crown Heights riot, there are two photographs of happy families – one Hasidic in a park, another Afro-Caribbean on a stoop. Both are entitled “What If?”
What photographer Jamel Shabazz means by that question is: What if on August 19, 1991, seven-year-old Gavin Cato had not been killed in a car accident and 29-year-old doctoral student Yankel Rosenbaum had not been killed in the ensuing riot? What if both had lived?
Gavin Cato would be 27 years old; the bottom photograph is what he and his family might have looked like. Yankel Rosenbaum would be 50; the top photograph is what he and his family might have looked like.
“Put aside all the politics and what remains is that two people lost their lives,” said Dexter Wimberly, curator of “Crown Heights Gold,” which is beind held at the Skylight Gallery of the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation through the end of October. It is one of two neighborhood exhibitions marking the tragic events; the other, at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, runs just through this weekend.
In a way, all three dozen works in the exhibition at the Skylight Gallery – photography, painting, collage, video, sculpture – ask the same basic question: How do you turn death into art?
Commissioned to create work for the exhibition, some of the artists, almost all of whom live in Brooklyn, addressed the riots directly. Valerie Caesar, in a piece she entitled, “One of the Cars That Got Burned,” creates a collage out of some two dozen newspaper clippings and the alarming headlines of those three days in August 1991: “RACIAL TENSION FLARES IN B’KLYN: Hasidim & blacks hit streets,” “Little Gavin is laid to rest,” “Dozens injured; cops hit; 16 arrests.”
A number of the works focus on the police. Kiran Chandra’s painting, “1991,” shows a line of helmeted riot police amid a banner-carrying crowd. Monique Schubert’s “Black and Gold” is a large paper cut-out sculpture of barbed wire and cops with billy clubs grabbing a civilian. Kambui Olujimi’s jewelry from “The Blackout Collection” features little handcuffs.
Delphine Fawandu, herself a long-time resident of Crown Heights, chose to focus on a peacemaker. There are three photographs of Richard Green, the founder of the Crown Heights Youth Collective, one of the many organizations founded in the aftermath of the riot that have worked to ease tensions in the community that the riot revealed to the world.
That members of the diverse community have been working together in the 20 years since the riot is at least symbolized by a site-specific installation in the exhibition entitled “Sole Tree” – gold-painted shoes, with candles placed in them, that have been attached to a column of the gallery like so many leaves and branches on a tree. The shoes, which everybody wears, represent how much more we have in common than we realize. The sculpture is also a symbol in that its first-time collaborators, Fiona Gardner and Kenya Robinson, are themselves from diverse backgrounds, an African-American and a Jewish artist.
“Sole Tree” is just one of the many pieces in the exhibition whose connection to the Crown Heights riots is not immediately evident. Oasa DuVerney has created a gold-colored bicycle made entirely out of paper, containing no metal at all. An accompanying video shows a boy trying to ride the bike (unsuccessfully, of course) on a Brooklyn sidewalk. To see a connection, it helps to know that Gavin Cato was fixing his bicycle on the sidewalk in front of his home on President St. in Crown Heights, when the driver of a car in the motorcade of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson lost control of his vehicle and plowed into him. But there is also a comment in this art piece about the fact that things, no matter how solid they may appear, can fail.
Shortly after the Crown Heights riot, Anna Deavere Smith interviewed more than 50 people involved in one way or another and put together her solo show, “Fires in the Mirror.” It portrayed 26 people – religious leaders, relatives of the victims, and regular Crown Heights residents through using their words, and even their gestures, verbatim. “When things are upside down,” she explained at the time, “there is an opening for a person like me” – by which she meant for an artist.
Twenty years later, as Crown Heights Gold makes clear, there still is.