LOS ANGELES — A bank of TV sets flicker on and off one by one, each showing a different media clip from the early 1990s: gang members being interviewed, talking heads spewing political punditry, videos of looting and burning buildings. Then, they all turn on, showing the same footage of a man lying on a darkened stretch of road, illuminated only by headlights, surrounded by several LAPD officers, who proceed to taser, kick, and hit him with their batons for several minutes — instantly recognizable as the 1991 Rodney King beating.
This incident and the officers’ subsequent acquittal is seen as the spark that ignited the 1992 LA Uprising — generally referred to as the LA Riots at the time — which resulted in dozens of deaths and the burning of a thousand buildings throughout South LA. The installation is part of an exhibition, Re-Imagine Justice, mounted by the South LA-based community organization Community Coalition, that aims to take a deeper look at the causes of the uprising, explore the neighborhood’s transformation, and highlight current issues of injustice and inequality.
The show combines contemporary artwork, archival material, and media installations to present a complex portrait of the unrest and its aftermath, foregrounding the perspectives of people from the area who lived through and were affected by these events. “Most of the artists are from South LA,” one of the exhibition’s organizers, Cristina Pacheco, told Hyperallergic. “That was critical. We wanted space for the community to tell their own story.”
One such space is a room remade in the guise of a looted liquor store, in disarray and covered in graffiti. Six video monitors are inset into the walls, playing firsthand accounts of the unrest. “That’s one of the most fascinating things about this,” said Pacheco, “that everyone has a different narrative about what 1992 was. You sit in this room and you hear the six stories, and where they were.” Titled “Stories of 1992,” the concept for the piece came from Ariana Del Carmen Manson, a high schooler who is involved in the organization’s student leader program, and realized by a team of collaborators.
Upon entering the exhibition, another installation titled “Angels of the Movement” draws parallels between the deaths of three children separated by decades, but sharing tragic similarities. In the setting of a pristine candy shop — a marked contrast from the looted storefront — blown-up photos of three smiling African American youth line one wall: Emmett Till, Latasha Harlins, and Trayvon Martin. A candy or convenience shop played a role in the killing of each child: it was where Till encountered the white woman who would falsely accuse him of accosting her; where Harlins was shot in the back of the head after a disagreement with the shop owner; and where Martin purchased the bag of skittles shortly before he was gunned down by George Zimmerman. Harlins’s killer, who thought she was trying to steal a bottle of orange juice, was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, serving only five years of probation with no jail time. In addition to King’s beating, this incident further inflamed tensions in LA leading up to the ’92 uprising.
Martin’s killing features in another work, arguably the most disturbing in the entire show. “One Dark Night” is a virtual-reality experience produced by Nonny de la Peña and Emblematic Group that uses audio of the 911 calls made on the night of his shooting to convey a narrative left out of conventional news stories. After donning VR goggles and headphones, each solitary viewer watches a CG recreation of the events, as various 911 callers recount what happened from various perspectives, beginning with Zimmerman’s and switching to the residents of the housing complex where Martin’s father’s fiancée lived. Martin is only depicted once, briefly when Zimmerman first spots him; the rest of the story shows concerned residents as they pace about their homes and peek out the window, frantically relaying to emergency operators the struggle happening outside.
These works accompany a main gallery space filled with mostly contemporary artwork that looks back on the events of 1992. Lili Bernard’s collaged painting of Harlins surrounds her beaming face with pictures of juice bottles and protestors, gold glitter and costumed jewels, as though she were a religious icon. A 2017 painting by Enkone depicts the 1992 “Peace Treaty” between the Bloods and the Crips, two notorious gangs who set aside their animosity to rebuild their neighborhood in the wake of devastation. Kahlil Joseph’s film “Wildcat” (2013) is a poetic cinematic vision of African American cowboys in Oklahoma, countering the narrative in popular media that overwhelmingly associated blacks with urban poverty.
Although the 25th anniversary of the uprising is the catalyst for the show, it extends well beyond the fiery events that began on April 29, 1992 to look at systematic forms of injustice. “It’s forcing people to look at inequality in a much more structural way,” Community Coalition President Alberto Retana told Hyperallergic, “so people come away realizing this was about more than just Rodney King, this was about the community that had decades of disinvestment. We hope that this serves as a point of inspiration for people to get involved locally. The Civil Rights Movement was not just about the March on Washington. It was about what was going on in Memphis, in Birmingham, in all of these different locales. We hope this triggers that kind of involvement in a broader sense.”
Re-Imagine Justice continues at the Community Coalition (81o1 S. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles) through April 29, culminating with Future Fest, a rally, march, and concert that begins at Florence and Normandie, ground zero for the 1992 unrest.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.