In 1978, the Whitney Museum in New York City premiered the first major showcase of Martine Barrat with an exhibition called “You Do the Crime, You Do the Time.” The show consisted of videos on loop wherein Barrat, behind the camera entirely out of view, interviews members of youth gangs in the South Bronx. The subjects spoke openly about their lives, unlocking a door into a world obscured by violence and poor living conditions.
The series earned accolades for Barrat, including a prize for best documentary in Milan, and broadened her exposure as an artist in the New York scene.
An Algerian-born French artist, Barrat migrated to New York in May 1968 after the period of civil unrest and revolution that swept France. In an essay about the 1978 show, Brent Hayes Edwards noted that the videos on exhibit at the Whitney had little to do with Barrat’s own world as an expat. Rather, they depicted the streets of the South Bronx, which at the time was known as the “slum of slums” and “city of death” as a result of its crippling poverty and socioeconomic collapse.
With more than 2,700 visitors during the exhibition’s six-day run, art curators and eminent French intellectuals found themselves standing next to the Black and Latino youths Barrat depicts. Having insisted that her subjects be invited and given complimentary tickets to the exhibition, Barrat allowed for this seemingly invisible aspect of New York to mingle and interact with the cognoscenti.
At Nina Johnson in Little Haiti, a selection of 20 photographs Barrat has taken in the years since are on view through November 14. The works cover more than four decades of the artist’s trajectory and intimate experiences, from her time spent documenting the lives of lower-income black children in Harlem to the moments she encapsulated on film around the world.
“We worked closely with Martine and her longtime printer, Chuck Kelton. Despite not being able to visit in person, we made numerous rounds of selections in close dialogue with one another,” Johnson says of the exhibition. “While we had originally hoped Martine could join us in person, travel was just not safe enough at the moment to make that possible. We are planning a digital event during the run of the exhibition.”
Visitors at “You Do the Crime, You Do the Time,” June 1978.
Photo by Chantal Regnault
As the exhibition’s epigraph notes, “[Barrat’s] life and prolific career have been about traversing borders, boundaries, and barriers…. Barrat has passionately documented the lives of those around her, often highlighting the exquisite power and beauty of human interdependence and empathy.”
It’s Barat’s tremendous respect for her subjects that allows them and the settings in which she captured them to be timeless. A photograph taken in Miami, Eric Williams, the dominoes champion, depicts the hands of a Black man holding four dominoes, connecting the viewer to the characters who inhabit Máximo Gómez Park, the modest Little Havana domino park that represents decades of cultural tradition.
Johnson is well aware of the bittersweet nature of the show amid the current climate.
“Martine’s work speaks predominantly to the importance of community, particularly in the face of hardship,” Johnson says. “Walking through her exhibition and being confronted by so many wonderful faces is especially emotional in our socially distant world.
Adds Johnson: “Each of the exhibitions we have planned for the remainder of 2020 are shows we felt could create space, open dialogues, and speak to our audiences, whether digitally or IRL, in the face of our current reality.”
Back in 1978, at the opening of “You Do the Crime, You Do the Time,” Barrat filmed an interview with Vickie Alvarez, president of the Roman Queens gang, on the steps on the Whitney. During the interview, Alvarez — who would die eight years later from complications of AIDS at age 28 — admitted to her nervousness and apprehension at the prospect of viewing the exhibition.
“I never thought I would have so many people listening to me,” she told Barrat.
“Martine Barrat.” Through Saturday, November 14, at Nina Johnson, 6315 NW Second Ave., Miami; ninajohnson.com. Tuesday to Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. by appointment only.