On a frigid November morning in Brooklyn, the artist Alexandra Bell set out with her gear: a bucket of wheat paste, a telescoping paint roller, a stepladder. She had rolled up large prints and placed them in her yoga bag. As she left her home dressed in black, she could see her breath in the cold air.
Once arriving at her destination, the artist pulled out a small hand brush and meticulously smoothed the prints â blown-up pages of The New York Times â onto a brick wall on a building that houses a couple of small businesses. That work, titled âCharlottesville,â deconstructs how The New York Times presented its main news article about the racially charged marches in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 12.
âCharlottesvilleâ is the fifth installment of Ms. Bellâs âCounternarrativesâ series, which began appearing on Brooklynâs streets and subway stations last New Yearâs Eve. Her first poster-size âCounternarrativesâ piece, consisted of two panels, one showing the Timesâs front-page profiles of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, and the white police officer, Darren Wilson, who shot and killed him in Ferguson, Mo., with the text re-edited, or redacted, to expose a âcounternarrative.â The other panel simply shows a portrait of Michael Brown in his graduation cap and gown under the headline âA Teenager With Promise.â (The original headline read âA Teenager Who Was Grappling With Problems and Promise.â)
âWhen I saw the Mike Brown story, I immediately thought objectivity got the paper into trouble to a certain extent,â she said during a recent interview at The New York Times building. âThe effort to make these two people just two regular people went too far. You have a child and you have an agent of the state. They werenât two homies in the hood and things didnât work out, as the original headline âTwo Lives at Crossroads in Fergusonâ implies.â
It immediately garnered attention on social media, particularly on Instagram. Fans reached out to Ms. Bell on Instagram either to express their support or to suggest other newspaper articles she should consider examining. The owner of a printing shop tracked her down on the street, offering to take care of all her print needs. She even received calls when the Michael Brown work was covered up. âAnd then someone went and physically peeled off the poster that was plastered on top of it,â she said. âItâs been incredible to see people protect the work. I never expected it.â
Ms. Bell, 34, a Chicago native, is an African-American artist straddling two worlds dominated by white men: media and art. Though there are writers and journalists who applaud her analytical approach to deconstructing news, Ms. Bell noted, there are people in the arts who are more cautious. âIâve been told that maybe I shouldnât focus so much on race,â she said. âArt people try to get me to diversify my work and not pigeonhole myself so I wonât be seen as the ârace girlâ in the art world. But everything is about race. Itâs tough not to say itâs about race.â
This was apparent to her even when she worked as a grant writer for a syringe-exchange program. She spent five years in that job before applying to Columbiaâs masters program in journalism. Eventually she experienced a âquarter-life crisis,â which prompted her to take a semester off. âI went to Paris for a month and spent time in an art collective not doing art,â she said. âIâm from what feels like a small gay black space, and I needed time to be in a different space where I could think through ideas.â Upon her return, she completed her degree in 2013.
It is that concern for historically marginalized groups that is the focus of herâCounternarrativesâ series, which examines the print version of The Times. âIâm creating a narrative that goes against the dominant narrative put forth by the news,â she explained.
One installment of her series looked at a front-page article about the United States swimmer Ryan Lochte and the controversy swirling around his robbery claim during the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Underneath the headline (âU.S. Swimmersâ Disputed Robbery Claim Fuels Tension in Brazilâ) was a photo of the Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, referring to the article in an inside page about his winning gold in the 200 meters. To Ms. Bell, that particular juxtaposition â with no image of Mr. Lochte on the page â was egregious.
As was the special display on the sports section front of a profile of the retired tennis player John McEnroe, she said. Two large images ran with the article about Mr. McEnroeâs career and new book. He also talked at length about a comment he had made about Serena Williamsâs rank if she had played on the menâs circuit. (It would be, he said, âlike 700 in the world.â) The McEnroe feature appeared the same day Serenaâs sister Venus Williams was to play a historic match at Wimbledon â she had reached the singles final there at 37. The day before, an article about her feat ran without an image on the sports section front. The Williams piece was âdwarfed in comparison to McEnroeâs,â Ms. Bell said. When contrasting the articles about Mr. Lochte and Mr. McEnroe, she said, âan important question emerges about how The Times centers whiteness,â when the news stories are positive and when they are negative.
Inside her windowless Bushwick studio, Ms. Bell has taped drafts of her works to the wall and spread them out on the floor. âI do subscribe to The Times,â she said. âMy studio is like an archive room.â To her, itâs crucial to examine current publications with a historical lens. Once sheâs identified an article, she proceeds to work.
âI choose a story because thereâs been some kind of violation to me,â she said. âItâs imperative to show how a turn of phrase or a misplaced photo has real consequences for people at the margins who are still suffering under the weight of unfair and biased representation.â
While her art has been exhibited at Bennington College in Vermont and Atlanta Contemporary in Georgia, her fans have printed smaller versions of âA Teenager With Promiseâ and posted them on the streets of Washington, D.C., and Chicago. (Ms. Bell mostly pastes her works onto walls in the Bedford-Stuyvesant, Clinton Hill and Crown Heights neighborhoods of Brooklyn.) Prints are also on view in a group show at the Koenig & Clinton gallery in Brooklyn, MoMA PS1 in Queens as well as at the Nathan Cummings Foundation in Manhattan.
Ms. Bell said she wants to help readers engage more critically with the news through her art. Occasionally, she will linger on the street just to observe how people react to her work. One day, she said, two men were about to climb into a car and one of them stopped to look at Ms. Bellâs piece. His friend urged him to hurry and get in, she said. âThe guy replied, âIâm trying to learn something.ââ
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