Dymin Ellis was tired of watching mothers wash their boys’ blood away with tears. Jasmine Smith wanted to explore the criminal justice system through fairytale metaphor. Mya Baldwin found that no one looked like her – or was particularly interested in making her feel welcome – on the cheerleading team. And on his way to a job interview, Myles Davis was pinned swiftly to the ground on the basis of his black skin.
If these anecdotes sound familiar, that’s because they are, and happening on a daily basis to some of New Haven’s youngest and most vulnerable community members.
Delivered with heart-rending frankness, these performances left a distinct imprint on the opening of “Arresting Patters: Race and the Criminal Justice System” at Artspace.
Curated by Sara Fritchey with Titus Kaphar and Leeland Moore, the exhibition explores the prison industrial complex and the criminal justice system’s role as a propagator and enforcer of the New Jim Crow through visual dialogue and discussion. Fritchey sees as about “repetition and replication, and to recognize how a system might evolve into a new version of itself over time.” The show will be up from now through Sept. 13.
Using Kaphar’s “The Jerome Project” as a springboard, the exhibition finds its initial momentum in a lineup of 11 works that pack a wallop. Pieces like Adrian Piper’s Everything #19.3: NYT Portrait of Megan Williams and Safe #1-4 are paired with Dread Scott’s Stop (2006) in a particularly dynamic way. Kaphar’s The Jerome Project XVIII and X (both 2014) and Jamal Cyrus’ Eroding Witness 7 Series (2014) speak to each other with fervent urgency. Meanwhile, works like Andy Warhol’s Birmingham Race Riot (1964), which Warholizes Charles Moore’s 1963 imagery and distributes in for a pop-art viewership that was and is still majority white present a difficult — if unintentional — sort of metacommentary on the universally destructive nature of white power dynamics across fields.
Its most compelling aspect, however, isn’t the exhibition at all. In the adjacent space, large-scale works by the 16 students in Artspace’s 15th annual Summer Apprenticeship Program (SAP) hang on display, bringing the conversation very close to home. For three weeks in June and July, Kaphar, Collective Consciousness Theater’s Dexter Singleton, hip-hop poet Aaron Jafferis and several SAP facilitators worked intensely with these students, creating works that spoke not only to the present moment, but to their present moment. From composing skits based on racial profiling to visiting a prison in their final week, the students have produced sharp, sometimes hard-to-stomach and always thought-provoking material.
Their hard work shows. Of the ways in which systemic racism has been locally explored or left unexplored in the past year – several downtown protests and die-ins, theatrical meditations on incarceration, colonialism, and youth violence, Dean Esserman’s stilted comments at Yale’s “Beyond Ferguson” and Diane Brown’s fearless ones at the Stetson Branch of the New Haven Free Public Library, or Ta-Nehisi Coates’ interview in Hartford last month – this is one of the best for its willingness to cede to young voices. Kaphar and Artspace Diretor Helen Kauder are especially gifted at these kinds of calls-to-arms, and the community benefits tremendously because of it.
“One of the themes of my studio, of my practice, is this sort of phrase that runs through my head: ‘there’s art in that.’ So when we were having these experiences with our students ... they were really, really moved by some of the things that they experienced, and I would say: ‘there’s art in that. You may not know what to do right now but there’s art in that.” said Kaphar at the event.
Singleton agreed. “When we started the application process [for SAP], it was completely open to New Haven Youth, and we were hoping that we would get 16 youth who were really interested in social justice, really intelligent and really excited to do the project. We got 16 gems. The group was so creative, so talented ... they have such a great sense of self. I was really excited and honored to work with these young people.”
“They are really the future of New Haven,” he added.
Arresting Patterns: Race and the Criminal Justice System and its partner exhibition are on view through Sunday, Sept. 13. To find out more, visit Artspace’s website or head to its Orange Street gallery space.