South Orange synagogue art exhibit depicts struggle for civil rights

South Orange synagogue art exhibit depicts struggle for civil rights

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

TSTI Art Committee president Richard Koch with curator Armisey Smith in front of “Slave Ship” by Akil Roper. Photos by Johanna Ginsberg
TSTI Art Committee president Richard Koch with curator Armisey Smith in front of “Slave Ship” by Akil Roper. Photos by Johanna Ginsberg

It’s hard to miss the pain in this exhibit.

“41,” a painting by Kay Reese, depicts multiple faces of Amadou Diallo, the black immigrant killed by police inside his East Bronx apartment in 1999. The piece’s name references the number of times the unarmed 23-year-old was shot. The faces, packed inside a tight, coffin-like box within the canvas, and the dwelling suspended in air, raise the specter of a slave ship and reflect the artist’s reaction to the brutality. 

“It’s real and yet surreal,” Reese told NJJN at the opening of the “Civil Rights Exhibit” at the Gallery at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel (TSTI) in South Orange on Feb. 19, which includes “41” and several other pieces.

At the time of the shooting, Reese lived just a few blocks away from Diallo, but she was so affected by the brutality that it took her two years to visit the site, a trip that ultimately changed how she approaches her art, she told NJJN. “Racism hurts,” she said. “And not just if it kills you. It hurts emotionally, psychologically, physically.”

Her comment could be the tag line for the exhibit, which runs through April 2 and features 33 pieces from 15 artists across New Jersey whose works serve as a commentary on African-American identity today. Aside from a statement in front of “41,” written by Reese, none of the pieces have placards explaining their meaning.

“The art speaks for itself,” said Armisey Smith, who curated the exhibit.

The synagogue’s intention in hosting the exhibit is to raise awareness about race in America. “We created this program to inspire thoughtful conversation and introspection in our nation’s bias history so we can move to a better place in race relations,” said Richard Koch, chair of the synagogue’s art committee. Committee members also felt it would be an appropriate follow-up to a recent synagogue teen trip to Atlanta and Alabama to visit historical sites related to the civil rights movement.

The synagogue founded the Gallery at TSTI about a year ago — “We had empty walls and needed to decorate,” Koch said. It often displays pieces by members of the community who are artists in their own right, but the gallery’s mandate requires that they host at least one exhibit a year that raises serious issues in the broader community. This year they decided the focus should be civil rights.

“Hats” by Cathleen McCoy Bristol

Smith, an African-American illustrator and arts educator, was raised Jewish and has curated exhibits at the Jewish Museum of New Jersey, housed in Newark’s Congregation Ahavas Sholom. She wanted this exhibit to reflect not only the historic civil rights movement, but also the idea that it continues into the present.

“There are so many areas that this country needs to address,” she told NJJN. “I wanted to select works that had people think about how … the civil rights movement is still here. It’s still very present.”

Many of the works offer a commentary on the everyday reality of being black in America, which Smith describes as “a grind of your spirit.” In response to that reality, she said, some people crumble, while others “just take that and reconstitute it into a message … how do we navigate this world and talk about the things that hurt us?”

“Scottsboro Boys Taken from the Train” and “Blind Scottsboro Boy,” mixed media monoprints by Onnie Strother, reflect historic racism and also serve as a reminder that little has changed. “Even today, there’s certain times you cannot express yourself as a person of color,” said Smith. “If you express yourself, you know, you’re labeled … [and] you might get hurt — or shot.”

Masks are a recurring theme throughout the exhibit, for example in Troy Jones’ “Can You See Me,” featuring a strong young black man wearing a T-shirt, his face covered by a mask; or in Ron Powell’s “Give Me Myself” series in black and white portraying creatures wearing masks.

“As an African-American, sometimes you have to put on a mask. Sometimes you have to just kind of make yourself not be noticed … we have to shrink down because we may sense danger,” said Smith. But other times, Smith said, she is left feeling like she has on a mask she didn’t choose. “It’s like, well, why is that person not acknowledging I’m here?”

“Blind Scottsboro Boy” by Onnie Strother

Some of the images need little explanation, like Jones’ images of Sandra Bland, the 28-year-old African-American woman who allegedly committed suicide in a Texas jail cell in 2015 after having been arrested during a traffic stop (“Say Her Name”), and the writer and activist James Baldwin (“Jimmy #2”), with golden halos evoking Renaissance paintings of angels and saints; or Akil Roper’s haunting “Slave Ship” or “Order in the Court,” which reflects the criminal justice system’s disproportionate impact on young black men.

Other works are more nuanced. Consider Cathleen McCoy Bristol’s “Hats,” a brightly colored painting of two women on a porch together. Each detail, from the clothing the women wear to the way they tie their hair back, communicates facets of identity that Smith said “are coded in who we are.”

Smith hopes the exhibit will serve as an impetus for people to start talking about the issues it raises, including tensions between the Jewish and African-American communities, although none of the pieces on display speak directly to that schism.

Reese is frank about her perception of the differences between the respective communities, noting that while Jews have been victims of discrimination, they don’t always connect to the black experience.

“With black people, we’re always dealing with the issue,” she said. “But I think to have [the exhibit] in a synagogue is important because most white people don’t — and I include Jews in that — most white people don’t connect. They don’t see it. They don’t hear it unless they see it on the news. But it’s reality. It’s a reality in all of our lives whether you realize it or not.”

She underscored the gap by describing the jarring nature of the recent rise in anti-Semitism.

“Lately, you see more instances of brutality and violence against Jews. And I’m sure Jewish people never really thought that this would be happening now, right?” she said, pointing out that Jews should have realized that when it happens to one marginalized group, it will soon happen to others.

TSTI president Max Weisenfeld said, “Most important is for us to engage with the art, [and] to find the Jewish message.” But he added that it is also a vehicle to engage the broader community. To that end, the synagogue has held events involving local community groups like SOMA Justice and the Community Coalition on Race, and inviting speakers to “do some work on black Jewish solidarity” through table discussions.

It’s an open question as to whether the conversations that emerge from the “Civil Rights Exhibit” will lead to action, but as Koch said, “Before there’s action, there has to be awareness.”

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