The lobby of the Community Coalition in the Vermont Knolls section of South L.A. has been transformed into a ghostly, unmanned convenience store. To the left of the counter, a cooler is filled only with unlabeled bottles of orange juice and cans of Arizona Iced Tea. Adjacent to that, a shelf overflows with bags of Skittles. And behind the counter, with its old-school cash register and display of mid–20th century treats like Sugar Babies, candy cigarettes and Necco Wafers, three young black faces stare out at prospective “shoppers.” Arranged in chronological order of their subjects' lives and deaths are oversized images of Emmett Till, Latasha Harlins and Trayvon Martin, three teenagers who were brutally murdered following or during trips to a corner store, making each martyrs to movements: Till's murder at the hands of racists in Mississippi was an impetus for the civil rights movement; Harlins' murder by Korean store clerk Soon Ja Du — and Du's subsequent slap-on-the-wrist sentence — took place in the build-up to the 1992 uprising; and Martin's murder by vigilante “neighborhood watchman” George Zimmerman birthed Black Lives Matter.
Entitled Angels of the Movement (designed by Gerri Lawrence, Glauz Diego and Caitlin Dennis) it's a shockingly powerful display for an exhibit at a community center, and it represents only a small portion of “Re-Imagine Justice,” on view through April 29.
On a recent weekday evening, besides the usual activity at the center — after-school programs, programs for seniors, etc. — the space bustles with docents showing visitors around the exhibit's various rooms. On the other side of the wall from Angels, a small room has been transformed into a circa-’92 looted convenience store. Shelves are askew and nearly empty except for some odds and ends like toilet paper and potted meat; graffiti on the wall reads: “Rodney King … We Love You Brother.” Computer screens have been situated behind holes punched through the walls, and on them testimonials from people who were present during the riots play on a loop.
In an adjacent, glass-enclosed room, visitors can put on a VR headset and experience “One Dark Night,” a virtual, first-person look at what Trayvon Martin would have seen during his final minutes. And across the hall from that, in the main exhibition space, is a dizzying array of works that represent artists' reactions to the uprising in ’92. There's professional art as well as student art. Some of the art is old and some was made for this occasion. Some pieces feel hopeful, while others resonate with a deep and abiding sorrow. It's all displayed together in a way that makes very little effort to distinguish past from present, a decision that suggests perhaps there isn't much difference between the past and the present in places like South L.A.
“How do you know when these images were taken?” Abraham Torres asks rhetorically, suggesting that not a lot has changed in terms of tension between the community and law enforcement since he took the series of photographs on display in “Re-Imagine Justice.” During the ’92 uprising, Torres, who then lived in East L.A., spent several days driving around South L.A. and shooting photos. He recalls: “The enormity of the experience just kind of like took me all in. So I'd end up going back and I did the three days and three nights, just documenting everything.” After that, Torres' negatives ended up in a box under his bed, languishing until now — this is the first time the images have been seen. They're so gripping, so well composed, that National Geographic purchased some for its new documentary LA 92.
Student artist Aviana Del Carmen Manson, an 18-year-old high school senior who grew up in South L.A., created a ceramic planter for the show. She'd never worked with clay before but executed a very specific vision in a way that's powerful in its fearlessness. (Manson also conceived of the aforementioned trashed convenience store.)
Two hands emerge from either side of her vase, pulling it apart at the top, and a plant sprouts from in between three bars. Like Manson, it brims with hope for the future. “I wanted the plant to represent new growth and earth breaking away from the stereotypes and the negativity; that's where the plant comes in, because we are plants,” Manson says. “We grow, we learn, we learn how to grow, we nurture ourselves, and in the toughest way we go through whatever everybody throws at us. That was a piece that I wanted to think about.”
“Re-Imagine Justice” is on display through April 29 at Community Coalition, 8101 S. Vermont Ave., Vermont Knolls. cocosouthla.org/lauprising.