Divided Brooklyn Neighborhood Finds Healing Power In Art

Kenneth E. Parris III, "An injury to one is an injury to all, Part 2", Acrylic on Eastern Parkway Paver, 7" x 8" x 3", 2016

Crown Heights art exhibition responds to 25th anniversary of the Crown Heights Riots

An undercurrent of trauma still flows throughout Crown Heights even as it blossoms into a fecund hub for culture and community.

Twenty-five years ago (from August 19-21 in 1991), riots broke out in response to a car crash that resulted in the death of a Guyanese child, Gavin Cato, and the serious injury of another young person. Subsequent riots turned against the Orthodox Jewish community resulting in the death of Yankel Rosenbaum. The physical and emotional scars caused by the violence during those three days continues to drive a wedge in the neighborhood today.

However, the community is taking steps to heal: on Sunday black and Jewish Brooklynites came together at an event to mark the 25th anniversary with speeches, a candle lighting and a march to Brower Park. And now a new art exhibit aims to continue in the community’s footsteps towards peace and understanding. THE ’91 VIOLENCE attempts to instill positive change by asking the creative community to respond to the wounds through art.  

On view through October 14, the group exhibition features a range of photography, painting, sculpture, drawing, video and installation by Brooklyn-based artists of all walks of life. Created specifically for Repair the World NYC’s community center on Nostrand Avenue, the location itself sends a positive message. “There’s nothing new about making work to process traumatic events, but these artists are making poetic choices about what to say and how to share it, and their collective thought-provoking perspectives promise to be stirring,” says exhibit curator Jonathan Allen.

With THE ’91 VIOLENCE being a hodgepodge of local talent, it is stirring to feel the history as well as the contemporary experience of Crown Heights residents through these pieces. Some works represent the results of unlikely collaborations between the Jewish and black communities. There are photographs of Leviim Gallery, an art gallery founded by Moshe Frank located on Kingston Avenue in Crown Heights, that specializes in Judaica art and shares a space with the motorcycle club, the Brooknines. Meirav Ong, working more conceptually with the juxtapositions in the neighborhood, uses gunpowder and watercolor to explore the way control and chaos interact and overlap on paper.

Other works address the gentrification process affecting many non-white communities, and people of color experiencing police brutality from 1991 to the present. Baseera Khan’s Fight the Power, displays 20 DD batteries on a wall, and under each battery pack is a name, age, and cause of death through police negligence or inexperience. Watching Khan write the names of the dead on the wall during the opening reception triggered the urgency of her message: violence is a constant in the neighborhood — it is not locked away in the past.

Kenneth E. Parris III’s "An injury to one is an injury to all, Part 2” is a striking beacon of hope for a more integrated future for Crown Heights. Depicting a combined portrait of Gavin Cato and Yankel Rosenbaum, the artist chooses to paint an unconventional surface: a paver taken from Eastern Parkway pedestrian/bike path, just blocks away from the crash scene that took Cato’s life and in proximity to where Rosenbaum was attacked.

The jagged, asymmetrical edges of the paver are aggressive in form, and the acrylic paint drips like blood on the lower right hand corner of the concrete. The object is layered with an almost palpable trauma — and yet, the way in which the victims’ portraits morph into one face by use of bright pinks, reds, and oranges reminds the viewer that once race relations are no longer a barrier, a unified image is possible.

Repair the World NYC is located at 808 Nostrand Ave, Brooklyn. Viewing hours: Tuesday – Friday: 12-6 PM and by appointment.

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