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Toronto exhibit examines aftermath of Birmingham, Oakland and Attica

TORONTO – “Aftermath” is the key word in mind throughout “Power to the People: Photography and Video of Repression and Black Protest,” a disquieting exhibit at Toronto’s Ryerson Image Centre. The word is prevalent throughout on the Ryerson walls that showcase the images of tragic events, examples of some of America’s failed attempts to dealt with its “race problem.”

At Ryerson, examining such failures’ repercussions begins on its Salah J. Bachir New Media Wall in an Adam Pendleton video titled “My Education: A Portrait of David Hilliard.” As we watch Hilliard sifting through an Oakland neighborhood where once grew a revolutionary movement’s branch, Pendleton asks us to consider, “How does the past filter through the present and relate to a future dynamic?”

“Nothing much has changed,” relates Hilliard, former chief of staff of the Black Panther Party, walking the Oakland area where an April 1968 shootout with Oakland police took place.  Helicopters descended and hundreds of police arrived, he says, reliving the gun battle which saw one Panther killed and several others injured. He walks by the first Panther office, points to bullet holes still evident, references Malcolm X and Los Angeles’ Watts riots, and recalls a more positive Panther program: free breakfasts for local youths.

“Birmingham, Alabama, 1963,” takes us back to a moment in Dawoud Bey’s young life when “Everything changed for me.” It was 1964, the first time Bey saw Sarah Collins, pictured with her eyes bandaged from injuries suffered in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham. Sarah’s sister, Addie Mae, was one of four young girls killed in the 1963 attack. In related violence, two young African-American boys were killed on the same Birmingham day.

In a memorial commemorating the tragedy, through photographic portraits, Bey presents black-and-white pictures of six youngsters at ages equivalent to the Birmingham victims at the time of the bombing. The pictures were taken in the “Communal space of the original sanctuary of Birmingham’s Bethel Baptist Church and in the public space of the Birmingham Art Museum,” relates Bey, “to provide social and historical context.”

The Bethel church was the heart of the Civil Rights Movement, site of the Alabama Christian Freedom Movement, eventually becoming the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The art museum was segregated for many years, allowing black visitors entry only one day a week – a day designated as Negro Day. With portraits of people who are as old as the victims would have been, 50 years later had they survived, through his lens, Bey asks us to ponder what might have been.

The two-part Birmingham exhibit includes pictures from Ryerson’s Black Star collection, anonymously gifted to the school in 2005. It contains 292,000 black-and-white photographs representing iconic photojournalism of the 20th century: Bull Connor’s police dogs and hoses trained on demonstrators; the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in a Birmingham jail; another as he walks the city’s streets; and the Bey photo – Sarah Collins, eyes bandaged, hospitalized.

Originating at the Le Point du Jour gallery in Cherbourg, France, and curated by Philippe Artieres, a historian of government violence, is “Attica USA 1971: Images And Sounds Of A Rebellion,” about the riot that left dozens dead when state police retook the prison. “In Attica, you had a perfect storm of people being engaged in challenging the system,” says Joseph “Jazz” Hayden, a former Attica prisoner in a video produced by The Nation magazine. That storm of people included members of the Black Panther Party, Nation of Islam, and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

While problems and turmoil existed before Attica, the uprising and retaking added to the unease, and did so visually through art, television, and film. Attica was the first prison uprising where inmates invited in journalists, photographers, and outside independent observers.

Lawyer William Kunstler, New York Times columnist Tom Wicker, and State Assemblyman Arthur O. Eve were among those who responded to the call.

Photos collected by Elizabeth Fink, a lawyer who later worked on behalf of inmates, are included in the exhibit. They are official police photographs of the uprising and its fallout that, as part of a defense team, she was able to keep. Prominently displayed, too, are the inmates’ Declaration to the People of America and “practical proposals” – the former a manifesto outlining their grievances, the latter demands for better treatment.

Documentary footage of “Attica,” a 1974 film by Cinda Firestone, is available for viewing. And on the exhibit’s back wall are photographs by John Shearer, an African-American photographer who worked for Life magazine. Chronicling the event are original copies of Life, Time, Ebony, and Newsweek magazines. Posters used in fundraising for various Attica legal causes are part of the assemblage, as are books on the Attica story.

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