For 20th Anniversary, Remembering Crown Heights Riots in Art and Music

Amid controversy surrounding Rev. Al Sharpton’s involvement, politicians and clergy members postponed an event at a posh Westhampton synagogue that would examine Black-Jewish relations in the 20 years since the Crown Heights riots. Sharpton, who at the time lived in New Jersey, became an outspoken presence during the riots and was accused of fanning the flames of unrest.

While those outside the neighborhood chose to reflect with words, some of the those who live in central Brooklyn have chosen art as a way to remember.

Crown Heights Gold: Examining Race Relations and Healing” is an exhibition at the Skylight Gallery that features the work of 23 artists, many long-time Brooklyn residents. Through paintings, collage, video, sculpture and mixed media, the artists approach the lasting impact of three days of race-related violence that targeted the insular hasidic community 20 years ago.

Exhibition curator Dexter Wimberly, who grew up on the border of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights, remembers the riots firsthand. He was 17-years-old on Aug. 19, 1991, when a station wagon that was part of a motorcade transporting the Grand Rebbe of the Chabad Lubavitch hasidic sect lost control and swerved up onto the curb, killing Gavin Cato, the seven year-old son of Guayanese immigrants. Later that evening, Yankel Rosenbaum, a 29-year-old Australian student, was beaten to death by a group of teens seeking vengeance for Cato’s death.

View artwork from the exhibition:

For Oasa DuVerney's "Gold Bike," she videotaped her nine-year-old son riding a bike she crafted out of gold paper at the intersection where Gavin Cato was struck.

“Because of my interests and my awareness  of the community at the time, the whole episode was front and center for me,” said Wimberly.

Oasa DuVerney is a Crown Heights-based artist and mother of two whose work is featured in “Crown Heights Gold.” Her piece “Golden Bike” explores the experience of Gavin Cato’s death. She constructed a life-size child’s bicycle using gold paper. She then videotaped her nine-year-old son attempting to ride the bicycle at the corner of President Street and Utica Avenue, the very intersection where Gato was killed. This footage is projected alongside a sculpture in the gallery.

“It’s not a functioning bike so each attempt to ride is a failure,” said Wemberly of “Golden Bike.” He continued, “Sometimes the things we create fail. Gavin Cato was repairing his broken bicycle chain when he was hit. The driver of the car experienced a brake failure. There was an alleged failure of the EMTs to treat Gavin when they first arrived.”

Wimberly said that members of the Hasidic community attended the gallery opening in late July, including Eli Cohen, Executive Director of Crown Heights Jewish Community Council. Cohen, said he was surprised by the depth of the exhibition in a telephone interview. He also said his organization is planning a remembrance of its own.

DeScribe, a local Jewish rap artist, performed at an event at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum on Aug. 18. He’s known for his work promoting racial understanding in the neighborhood.

On Thursday evening, Aug. 18, the Brooklyn Children’s Museum on Eastern Parkway, hosted a reception in partnership with the Jewish Children’s Museum and New York’s Jewish Community Relations Council: “Celebrating 20 Years of Advancement.” A lineup of musical performances included Mighty Sparrow, the “Calypso King of the World” and DeScribe, a local Jewish rap artist.

“We want to change the narrative about Crown Heights,” said Cohen. “If a psychologist asks: ‘what comes to mind when you think of Crown Heights?’ You might say ‘racial tension,’ but Crown Heights is about more than that.”

On Saturday, Aug. 20th, Skylight Gallery will host an artist talks — an event that will no doubt have a different flavor than the postponed panel that would have included City Councilwoman Letitia James, Rabbi Marc Schneier and possibly Rev. Al Sharpton.

Wimberley said he wanted to avoid politicizing his exhibition: “What was driving me was a general love of Brooklyn. Two people lost their lives that day, nothing is more important than that. Things have gotten better but they are far from where they need to be,” he said.

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