I recently attended the Ryerson Image Centre‘s opening party for Power to the People: Photography and Video of Repression and Black Protest, a new winter exhibit on campus. Power to the People creates a visually shocking exploration of state violence enacted by lawmakers and police against people of colour and their struggles for justice and equality.
When you first walk in the gallery you are met with Adam Pendleton’s My Education: A Portrait of David Hilliard, a documentary reviewing a fatal gun battle between members of the Black Panther Party and the police of Oakland, California narrated by Hilliard himself, a founding member of the Panthers. While I am watching the eight screen panels illuminate with black and white images of the shootout location in Oakland, I overhear two women talking about how they fear the same will begin happening more regularly in the United States and I am reminded with how immediate this exhibit really is.
For me, the most moving portion of the gallery was Attica USA 1971: Images and Sounds of a Rebellion, which is a well-documented prison rebellion where prisoners were protesting against inhumane living conditions and calling for civil rights. The prisoners requested that journalists and photographers be allowed into the prison in order to document the injustice they faced, which led to a never-before-seen look into mass incarceration and politics of race and power. The rebellion ended when lawmakers ordered guards to violently stop the protests, leading to a total of 39 prisoners killed, one of the most violent prison riots the United States had ever seen. Some videos were recorded from the guns of the guards who fired at prisoners, which allows you a direct look into the injustice of Attica in 1971, along with photographs from inside the prison as well as historic journals from the 70s.
In another room, viewers flocked around black and white photographs of Dawoud Bey’s Birmingham, Alabama, 1963 and images of the Civil Rights Movement provided by Ryerson’s Black Star Collection. Dawoud Bey’s twelve portraits commemorate the six victims of the Ku Klux Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Bey takes portraits of six children who would have been the same age as the bombing victims, and places them beside portraits of six people who would have been their age, had they not been killed in a terrorist act. Each subject in the photographs looks towards the viewer with a plain expression on their face, causing the viewer to look them in the eye and directly acknowledge the loss of life by an act of racial violence.
Also from the Ryerson Image Centre’s Black Star Collection of photojournalism is Sister(s) in the Struggle, which features candid photographs of Angela Davis and Kathleen Cleaver. Through their dedication to black liberation, these women became the central feminine figures of the Black Panther Party.
The Ryerson Image Centre also features a gallery curated by current photography students. The current exhibit is called The Darkroom Project: Taloyoak, 1972-1973 which explores Pamela Harris, a Toronto photographer, setting up a darkroom for indigenous women of Taloyoak, Nunavut to learn to develop and share their own photographs. Taloyoak residents were already familiar with photography, but in order to process the film they had to send their rolls of film over 1000 kilometers away to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. Harris and other members of the community began to set up a darkroom in the restroom of the local women’s craft shop. Through the Darkroom Project, many indigenous photographers, mostly Inuit craftswomen, were able to document their own life experiences and communities as opposed to having outsiders come in and shoot photos with a non-local perspective. Pamela Harris was present at the opening party, where she pointed to photographs and explained to some viewers what the context was and what the town looked like in the seventies.
You can see all these exhibits for yourself at the Ryerson Image Centre, which will all be on display until April!