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griefwork: latasha Harlins

forgotten inciting incident of the 1992 la race riots

The shooting of black teenager Latasha Harlins in LA, 1992 was an inciting incident for the LA race riots. She was 15 years old when she was shot by store clerk, Soon Ja Du, while exiting the store after a misperceived attempt of shoplifting. The shooting was caught on the store security video. A jury found Du guilty of voluntary manslaughter which carried a maximum of 16 years in prison. Judge Joyce A. Karlin decided to not give Du any prison time rather, community service and a $500 fine. I was horrified to watch history repeat itself with the murder of Breonna Taylor and the absolute evasion of justice the officers responsible met. I found it additionally violent the lack of mainstream media coverage concerning the shooting of Breonna Taylor as it was eerily reminiscent of the treatment of Latasha Harlins’ largely forgotten loss. 


The act of using art as an instrument to remember forgotten histories brought me to the contemporary artist, William Kentridge. Kentridge’s artwork responds to mass human atrocities from the past which continue to reverberate to our present. Kentridge not only focuses on humanity’s history of tragically and violently failing itself during an active horrific event, but also the violence that is felt in the failure to bring proper reconciliation to those afflicted in the future and the malicious erasure of documentation of brutalities by those responsible.  

Kentridge’s “Black Box” piece uniquely combines film, performance, animation, research and sculptural object to represent Germany’s genocide of the Heroro people. Kentridge aptly describes the black box itself as “an instrument for recording disaster” referencing the purpose of the audio-recording device meant to survive plane crashes and provide a record of the disaster. The performance begins with a drumming pattern and a small figure with a megaphone head enters the stage holding a sign reading “TRAUERARBEIT”. Trauerarbeit or “grief work” is a Freudian concept which defines mourning as an activity instead of a passive emotion. In Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia”, he defines grieving as “the reaction to the loss of a loved person, or to the loss of some abstraction which has taken the place of one, such as a fatherland, liberty, ideal, and so on", which perfectly encapsulates the efforts of the “Black Box” performance. The “Megaphone man” appears to be shouting the overture of The Magic Flute with desperate effort as the figure trembles and twists its head. One can assume the “Megaphone man” represents Kentridge. However, one could argue that the most accurate representation of himself is the instrument of the black box audio recording device. Like Kentridge, the black box does not exist  solely to observe, rather it is designed with the greater intention of preventing future disasters.


While constructing my grief work of Latasha Harlins, I fruitlessly hoped to act as a black box with the similar design intention. I chose the medium of a block print because of its repeated use historically in movements. The repeated horizontal carving pattern references the grainy lines obscuring the CCTV footage. I admired Jacob Lawrence’s insistence on thorough research when painting different aspects of black American history. I also admired the effectiveness of his economic design and tried to emulate a similar language visually to pay homage. I also thought it was appropriate to incorporate formal characteristics of German Expressionism given the horrifying violence depicted in the sequence.

content warning: my detailed observations and screenshots of the available cctv recording of the shooting

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