Rewriting History

I n its newest exhibition, Artspace expands the definition of creativity to include activists and the way in which they, like artists, reimagine the world. Revolution on Trial: May Day and The People’s Art, New Haven’s Black Panthers @ 50 comprises works commissioned from seven artists covering a variety of media: painting, drawing, sculpture, audio, video. Along the way, it covers that moment in history from a surprisingly new perspective: that of the people who lived it.

Thus Revolution on Trial retells the story of New Haven’s May Day protests of 1970 and the “trial of the century,” in which a group of Black Panthers—the “New Haven Nine,” as the news media called them—were put on trial for various charges related to the kidnapping, torture and murder of fellow Panther Alex Rackley, a teenager mistakenly suspected of being an FBI informant. Shooters Warren Kimbro and Lonnie McLucas and co-conspirator George Sams all served prison time. Also among the nine were the Panthers’ national chairman, Bobby Seale, and Ericka Huggins, founder of the New Haven chapter, who were ultimately acquitted in a high-profile trial in 1971. Thousands convened on the Green on May 1 and 2, 1970, in support of the Panthers—a protest “organized by Panthers, community members, internationally recognized activists and Yale students against the backdrop of increasingly mediatized racial unrest, the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War and other social problems,” Artspace explains on its website.

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In planning the gallery’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of these events, co-curators La Tanya S. Autry and Sarah Fritchey decided early on that diving into existing archives and scholarship about the protest and the trial would not be enough. “We realized, ‘We need to involve the people who are still living today in the city in this show… We need to go directly to the source,’” Fritchey says. They convened their chosen artists, New Haveners involved in the movement and key figures including Huggins herself for three days of intensive discussion that helped to shape Revolution on Trial.

Among the works on view are several portraits of current local activists and community organizers painted this year by Kwadwo Adae; an installation of hand-drawn wallpaper with a wooden viewing bench, History Constructs the House That Sometimes Holds Us (2020), by Alex Callender; an audio installation titled Soundtrack (2020) by Paul Bryant Hudson; a series of shields made from decommissioned school buses in Puerto Rico, Shields/Escudos (2020), by Miguel Luciano; and a forthcoming video project by Melanie Crean, interrupted by the pandemic and represented in the gallery by excerpted written testimonies. There’s also a showcase of work by Artspace’s 2020 summer apprentices, who, inspired by the Black Panther Party’s communications strategies, “explore[d] graphic design as a tool for activism, organizing and storytelling.”

But for me, the real show-stopper was Mercy Quaye’s accompanying podcast, which was released in eight weekly episodes leading up to the exhibition and can be heard via QR codes in the “Archive Room.” Quaye was part of the exhibition’s research team (also including Joshua Aiken, Nyeda Sam and Minh Vu), but the podcast, over three hours in total, transcends the realm of research to become a work of art in its own right. It’s accompanied by photographs, letters, publications, books and videos filling in facets of the events that put New Haven in the international spotlight. In the podcast, Quaye interviews locals who retell their own stories, linking them to activism in New Haven today and the continued aspiration toward justice for all. Though Quaye is a trained journalist, she’s forthright about her subjective aim in this work: “I’m committed to the just retelling of history from the perspectives of those who lived it, felt it and are consistently impacted by it today,” she says in one episode.

While seeing Revolution on Trial at Artspace is, of course, the fullest experience, the good news for those still quarantining at home is that the podcast is accessible online. It provides a deep and broad context for what happened before and after the main events that elicited so much attention. It originally aired early in the pandemic, as a new wave of calls for racial justice began to surge. “So much has happened in eight weeks,” Quaye says in the final episode. “And while this wasn’t the case when we started, now our country is on the edge of this generation’s Civil Rights movement.”

Fritchey says some museumgoers have criticized the exhibition for spinning the story, leaving out some of its more unsavory elements: the days of torture endured by 19-year-old Alex Rackley, his eventual murder and other acts of violence that were undeniably part of the movement. But Fritchey defends the presentation as “a reparative history”—one that sets aside the narrative of “the criminalization of the Panther members” that has been told over and over again, she says, in favor of putting the Panthers themselves at the center of the story. In any case, Quaye’s podcast does include details of what happened to Rackley, particularly as told by Panthers defense attorney David Rosen in episode six.

Bookending the podcast and accompanying artifacts in the gallery are two more commissioned works: Chloe Bass’s short film, A hand that held and loved someone (Personal Choice #3) (2020), and the video I Am You (2020), produced by Ice the Beef, an anti-gun violence organization working with youth statewide, under the direction of Chaz Carmon. If you go to the gallery, I recommend first watching I Am You, featuring six young black women from New Haven reciting poetry and writings of Huggins penned during her pre-trial imprisonment. Then listen to the podcast, if you have the time. Finally, go sit on the bench in the small area where Bass’s film is playing.

Bass chooses a completely different focal point for telling the story: the love of Ericka Huggins for her husband, John, who was killed by a black nationalist on the campus of UCLA in January of 1969 in what may have been an FBI-orchestrated rivalry. John Huggins was originally from New Haven, and his young wife came to the city with their infant daughter shortly after his death to be with his family. A hand that held and loved someone includes video footage of May Day and of Huggins’s release at the end of her trial. “She looks so stunned, and she looks so shy and kind of awkward,” Bass said in an artist and curator talk held on Zoom shortly after the show opened. Love, she contends, is “underlying all these larger stories that we know of as history.” In the video’s poetic narration, Bass argues we should, “Make revolution a place where we can stay. That’s what love is.”

Co-curator Autry acknowledged during the artist and curator talk the breadth of not only information but also feeling encompassed by Revolution on Trial. “It’s a bigger show than I thought I was taking on,” she said. “It’s not a ‘straight up’ just art show… It’s really a community experience.”

Revolution on Trial:
May Day and The People’s Art, New Haven’s Black Panthers @ 50

Artspace – 50 Orange St, New Haven (map)
Wed-Sat noon-6pm through October 17
(203) 772-2709 | info@artspacenh.org
www.artspacenewhaven.org/exhibitions/revolution

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Photographed by Dan Mims. Image 1 features Miguel Luciano’s Shields / Escudos. Image 2 features portraits of local activists and organizers by Kwadwo Adae. Image 3 features a wider view of the “Archive Room,” where assets related to Mercy Quaye’s Revolution on Trial podcast reside. Image 4 features a still of video work by 2020 summer apprentice Adrian Huq.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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