“Arresting Patterns: Race and the Criminal Justice System” at Artspace Gallery
By Ruth Bruno
A conference on the criminal justice system September 12th and 13th at the Yale University Art Gallery tops off a unique exhibit involving high school apprentices.
On a Friday night in late July, a crowd gathered inside Artspace Gallery in downtown New Haven. The microphone has failed to work this evening, but the booming voices of students won’t be hushed.
Dymin Ellis, at the front of the room, joins 17 other student apprentices in “The Jerome Project.” After working through the summer, the students are finally showcasing their artwork and poetry in an effort to bring awareness to racial disparity within the criminal justice system.
“The taste of black blood is now boring to the asphalt,” states 18-year-old Ellis, delivering a particularly poignant line of spoken-word poetry to the crowd.
In her poem entitled “Dog-Lady,” Ellis tells her story as an African-American girl walking along the street when a police officer tells her to cross the street so his K-9 dog wouldn’t “catch her scent” and attack.
“Thanks for your consideration,” recites Ellis, “because I was pretty tense — but not because of your German shepherd. I am tired of watching mothers wash away their sons’ deaths with tears,” continued Ellis.
She later revealed that the idea for the poem was based on her experience walking home from work one day.
“I’m a dog person, so I was kind of offended,” says Ellis cracking a smile, referring to the moment when the police officer told her to cross the street. She says as she thought the occurrence over, events in which black protestors would get attacked by dogs came to Ellis’ mind.
“I want to remind them of things we have gone through to get this far,” said Ellis when asked what she wanted readers of her poem to understand, “but it still hasn’t pulled through completely,” referring to race relations and inequality in the United States.
The 18 apprentices of “The Jerome Project” worked on their art and poetry under the guidance of Titus Kaphar, a Connecticut artist who created and showcased his project of the same name at the Gallery. Inspiration for this piece came to Kaphar in 2011 when he typed his father’s name, Jerome, into the federal registry of prisons. The mug shots of 99 different men appeared—all with the same first and last name.
Kaphar took outlines of the profiles of several of the men and overlapped them until their individual faces are not recognizable. This asphalt and chalk series is on display at Artspace.
“Our students are targeted,” said Kaphar in an interview with Camille Hoffman, Artspace’s Summer Apprenticeship Facilitator. “But it’s empowering to think about us giving them some means to speak out about this – to speak out and fight back to a certain degree, if only through our art.”
Lisa Mwinja’s painting, entitled “Losing Hope” (pictured), is just one of many works by students on display as part of the exhibition titled “Arresting Patterns: Race and the Criminal Justice System” at the Gallery. The painting tells the story of a man named Daniel who committed suicide after being held in prison. Mwinja, 16, found the man’s story after some online research and says she decided to paint a depiction of his face to show the suffering he endured.
Mwinja says she painted his face light blue to show a loss of hope and his head red to signify his death by suicide. “Others should know that these people shouldn’t have to be by themselves — that we can help them,” she explained as she gazed into her painting.
For this year’s summer apprenticeship theme of criminal justice issues, the Gallery contacted attorney Leland Moore who became the Researcher-in-Residence and developer of the project. Moore, who works for the Connecticut Sentencing Commission, began designing a curriculum for the project in February and says he wanted to keep the learning process as engaging as possible for the students. “I think the only way to teach this topic is to have a discussion, because if you give a lecture, it’s not going to work. It’s not a dry topic and it’s not an un-relatable topic at all, but it’s often taught in a way that is,” said Moore.
Within the curriculum Moore focused on discussion of current events surrounding issues of race relations and criminal justice. The students were encouraged to share their own conclusions and present those ideas through the medium of art. “The students we had were a really solid group of people who were genuinely interested and willing to learn,” said Moore. “It didn’t hurt that they were all talented artists as well who could express what they were feeling.”
While Moore spent much of his time doing research and developing the layout of the apprenticeship, he says he values the time he spent with the young artists. “That has been the most rewarding part of the project,” said Moore. “I don’t think I could have predicted the final result but I knew that something powerful was definitely going to come out of the program.”
“Arresting Patterns,” which includes the work of artists from New Haven and beyond alongside the students, will be on display at the not-for-profit Artspace Gallery, at 50 Orange Street in New Haven, until September 13th. The final event of the summer apprenticeship will be a conference hosted at Yale University Art Gallery September 12th and 13th. Guest speakers and artists will present their views and work on various issues within the criminal justice system. Admission to the conference is free of cost and open to the public.