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Art Exhibit Debuts, Remembers The 20th Anniversary of the Crown Heights Riots

“When everyone else was leaving the neighborhood, we stayed,” said Rabbi Eli Cohen, executive director of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council. “We said, ‘we have nothing to be afraid of; this is our community too, we can work together.’”

At a roundtable meeting with a handful of community leaders, Cohen shared his perspective on how his own Hasidic Jewish community of Crown Heights viewed early black and Jewish race relations in the 60s and 70s in Brooklyn.

The roundtable meeting, held last month in June, was called by the art directors at the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation to discuss possible sensitivities and community reaction to its upcoming art exhibit, Crown Heights Gold, which will debut tomorrow, July 28, at the Skylight Gallery.

Crown Heights Gold is a commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Crown Heights Riots – perhaps, one of the loudest failures in black and Jewish relations in Brooklyn’s modern history, and definitely not the direction Rabbi Cohen envisioned for “working together.”

August 1991: A seven-year-old black boy named Gavin Cato stopped to fix his bike on President Street in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, when he was hit by a car. The car that hit and killed him was driven by 22-year-old Yosef Lifsh, a Hasidic Jew.

After a private Jewish emergency service arrived on the scene and reportedly carried away Lifsh and left Cato, outrage erupted throughout the predominantly black community of Crown Heights, resulting in three days of rioting where an innocent, 29-year-old Jewish student, Yankel Rosenbaum, also was stabbed and killed.

The Crown Heights Gold exhibition takes an up-close-and-personal look at this community tragedy, examining, through the lens of various artists, the chain of events that produced the perfect storm leading to the riots, including the community’s visceral reaction during the riots and also the sociological fallout of its occurrence.

The show is an effort to pay homage to the lives lost, to heal and to reconcile the past with present.

Through painting, photography, sculpture and mixed media, an interracial and inter-generational group of 23 artists will explore the face of race relations, particularly amongst blacks and Jews, and more specifically, as it relates to the Crown Heights riot.

The exhibit runs from July 28 – October 31, 2011. Other public programs will accompany the exhibit throughout the months of August, September and October, including an artist talk, a community panel discussion and a youth workshop.

“I think people’s memories for historical occurrences are very short,” said Dexter Wimberly, the project’s curator. “There are those that remember the riots, and then there’s an entire generation out there that has no idea about what happened, or why the community is the way it is today. I think it’s necessary to re-engage people. The incident may be 20 years old, but the subject matter is as fresh as this morning.”

Wimberly’s other projects include the acclaimed exhibition, The Gentrification of Brooklyn: The Pink Elephant, which debuted at the Museum of the Contemporary African Diaspora Arts (MoCADA) last summer.

Although most of the artists were born and raised in Brooklyn, and of that group, many are from Crown Heights, some were still young children during the riots and have no real recollection, while another small group of international artist weren’t even living in the United States at the time.

Wimberly pointed out, when he did a call for artists, it was important every artist have his or her own point of view. He said, he felt no compulsion to necessarily guide people’s opinions or make sure everyone interprets the messages in only one way.

“This is just a point of entry to a bigger engagement,” he said. “Doing a show in a didactic way of saying this is what happened, this is who was involved, and this is what the newspaper and media said, it doesn’t serve a purpose of being an art exhibition. You can get that from a panel discussion or a community gathering.

“If we’re going to infuse art into it, then we need to use art for what art is good for, which is making people think in unusual ways about things that are rather common.”

Photographer Jamel Shabazz contributes two pieces, entitled, “What If,” each a portrait of a large, extended family – one black and one Hasidic Jew – suggesting that if both Cato and Lifsh had lived, they could have produced families of that nature.

“It was a very tense time in New York, the tail end of the crack epidemic; Minister Farrakhan was leading the Nation [of Islam], there was a lot of racial tension all over America, and I didn’t like it,” said Shabazz, who grew up in East Flatbush.

David Dinkins was mayor of New York City during the riots, and not dissimilar to the Barack Obama era, a black man at the helm raised a lot of racial tension, discord and divide amongst the white population at the time. 1991 also marked the year of the City University protests and building takeovers, the Rodney King beating, the end of the Persian Gulf War, and the end of Apartheid in South Africa.

“I have my own feelings about what happened,” said Shabazz. “As I was searching for images for this exhibition, I made it a point to stand in front of the synagogue and also attend the West Indian Day parade and document the two worlds.

“I had experience with a lot of Hasidic Jews as a young boy, and over time, I grew to respect them. I also had a relationship with a black woman that was raised in the Yeshiva. But for Crown Heights, it’s still complicated.”

Wimberly admitted, he did not reach out to the families of the victims in researching or curating the exhibit. He said he was careful to walk a fine line between remaining sensitive to all those involved who may have vastly different points of views, and also allowing ample room for individual artist interpretation.

“The most difficult part about me conceiving this project is the fact that I have a son that is the same age as when Gavin Cato was killed. And I had to ask myself, ‘If my son had died in that way, how would I feel about someone doing an exhibition 20 years later?’”

“It’s a hard question to ask yourself; how would I really know?” said Wimberly. “But I have to say, I think I would respect the fact that someone is remembering my child.”

The opening reception for Crown Heights Gold is Thursday, July 28, from 6:00pm – 8:00pm, at the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation Center for Arts and Culture Skylight Gallery, located at 1368 Fulton Street, 3rd floor. Gallery hours are Wednesday through Friday, 11:00am to 6:00pm and Saturdays, 1:00pm to 6:00pm


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