Alexandra Bell’s goal is to show that the jogger was not the only victim in the Central Park Five story—that the horror could also apply to the experience of the wrongly convicted teen-agers.
In 1989, a twenty-eight-year-old woman was brutally attacked and raped in Central Park. Five teen-agers, four of them African-American and one Hispanic, were arrested for the crime. The tabloids took notice and printed countless stories about a young white investment banker getting preyed upon by a gang of thugs in the heart of crime-ridden New York City. The hysteria even inspired Donald Trump, a local celebrity, to take out a full-page ad in four daily New York newspapers calling for the teens to be “executed.” But the story wasn’t true. The teen-agers, who became known as the Central Park Five, were wrongfully convicted and served several years in prison. When the real rapist came forward, in 2002, their sentences were vacated. Thirty years later, the case is a cautionary tale of a media-fuelled rush to judgment.
“I was really attracted to this moment where all the rules of journalism had been abandoned,” Alexandra Bell, an artist whose work critiques how the media covers race, said. “This is the way violence in reporting operates, and there was a lot of egregious, awful reporting about the Central Park Five.”
Bell, who earned a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University, often uses her inside knowledge of journalistic practices to highlight the ways in which racial bias permeates news coverage of communities of color. Her studio, in Brooklyn, is filled with towering piles of plastic containers stuffed with newspapers, a key source of inspiration for “Counternarratives,” her acclaimed public-art series that radically reconstructed several front pages of the New York Times with annotated headlines and line edits to show the paper’s lack of balance.
In her new series, Bell sets her sights squarely on the New York Daily News, whose breathless coverage during the first ten days following the Central Park rape were filled with lurid headlines like “Central Park Horror” and “Wolf Pack’s Prey.” The paper published photos of the teens and details about where they lived and went to school. The hysteria culminated in Trump’s ad calling for the death penalty. “Over the course of reporting, the lack of care was so pervasive,” Bell said. “That prompted me to look at the language and words that were applied to black and brown people. Labels and words matter.”
The title of the series, “No Humans Involved—After Sylvia Wynter,” is a disturbing reference to the Los Angeles Police Department’s use, in the early nineteen-nineties, of the acronym N.H.I.—“no humans involved”—for criminal cases involving black men. (The poet and scholar Sylvia Wynter interrogated the phrase in an essay titled “No Humans Involved,” in 1994.) To guide the viewer’s eye to dehumanizing language, Bell placed a bright yellow highlight on keywords, or redacted sections by covering portions of the pages with black squares. Some pages are completely redacted, while others, like the Trump ad, have no markings. “The Trump page, to me, in itself is racist,” Bell said. “It doesn’t need any highlighting. There’s nothing to point to—it exists.”
The artworks were made using an exhaustive process of photo-lithography and screen printing, and will be featured in this year’s Whitney Biennial. At the Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop, in midtown, Bell created metal plates from a negative, then rolled out print after print, working with the help of master printers Rie Hasegawa and John Andrews.
Bell’s goal is to force viewers to see that the jogger was not the only victim in this story—that the horror of the attack in the park could also apply to the experience of the wrongly convicted teen-agers. With this new perspective, Bell said, “I really want people to look at it and question the role that the Daily News played in the way we viewed these particular people, and think about the responsibility that journalists have.”