Last week, a formidable team of Black artists, activists, and thought-leaders gathered for Art of Collective Care & Responsibility: Handling Images of Black Suffering & Death, a five-part online teach-in grappling with the limits and possibilities of the arts to address anti-Blackness. It is the first project of the Black Liberation Center, founded by cultural organizer La Tanya S. Autry in association with moCa Cleveland, where Autry is the Gund Curator in Residence, and the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center. Autry opened the first gathering on Thursday, December 3, by establishing an imperative: the teach-in departs from the often hierarchical and racist nature of museum spaces, further illuminating that #MuseumsAreNotNeutral, a slogan and movement initiated by Autry and museum educator Mike Murawski in 2017.
A particular impetus behind the teach-in is the cancelation of Shaun Leonardo’s exhibition on police brutality at MoCa Cleveland. It sparked debates about the difference between censorship and concerns about displaying images of Black death, particularly without consent from the family and community of the deceased. The Breath of Empty Space would have included a charcoal drawing depicting Tamir Rice’s last moments before being murdered by a police officer at age 12. His mother, Samaria Rice, denounced the exhibition and requested Leonardo stop displaying the artwork. Although the images of Tamir were excluded from an exhibition at Mass MoCA, they are expected to be displayed at the Bronx Museum when the show opens there in January.
For Art of Collective Care & Responsibility, Rice was invited to speak her truth about the utilization of her son’s likeness and memory in art and media, which she did with grace and strength. As the mother of Tamir, she offered cogent remarks on her tireless activism since his 2014 murder. “America had told me a lie, sold me a lie…” exclaimed Rice as she recounted the devastation of being falsely led to believe that her son would receive justice. “I did not want to continue to go on allowing America to […] tell lies to our black and brown children.”
She translated her “pain into power” and an unimaginably horrific circumstance into “something beautiful” as she embarked on years of organizing on behalf of her child. She established the Tamir Rice Foundation and the Tamir Rice Afrocentric Cultural Center, with commitments to fostering a safe and healthy world in which Black children thrive. Bittersweet feelings were communicated in the Zoom webinar’s chat room — attendees drew inspiration from Rice’s advocacy, yet remained painfully aware that she and Tamir deserved better.
A collective breath was needed before the keynote address. Aimee Meredith Cox, Yale Associate Professor of African American Studies and Anthropology, led the group in a meditation — inviting everyone to tap into the rhythm of their breathing and heartbeat, and affirming that “we are here, we are love, we radiate love.”
Key Jo Lee, Assistant Director of Academic Outreach at the Cleveland Museum of Art and a collaborator of Autry’s, introduced the keynote address by Christina Sharpe, Black feminist scholar and York University professor. Sharpe opened by naming the “ongoing conflicts and contradictions” of the land from which she joins the Zoom call, acknowledging the First Nations people to whom Toronto belongs. She recited Ross Gay’s poem, “A Small Needful Fact,” a reflection on Eric Garner’s work with the NYC Parks and Recreation Horticultural Department, which is to say he hand cultivated plants that make it easier “for us to breathe.” Expounding further on the topic of racial violence and ecology, she then turned to the Equal Justice Initiative’s “Lynching in America: A Community Remembrance Project,” which collects and displays soil from sites where lynchings occurred to memorialize victims.
The remainder of the keynote proceeded, teeming with eloquent reflections on the work of Black women artists: Torkwase Dyson’s richly Black, evocative abstractions, Ja’Tovia Gary’s Black feminist montage film, The Giverny Document (2019), and Jennifer Packer’s floral still lifes that evoke beauty and care in the wake of loss and mourning. After Sharpe’s keynote, participants were regaled with “Black is Beautiful” — an experimental jazz and spoken-word piece, composed and performed by Fay Victor.
Day two spotlighted a robust panel discussion among Autry, Lee, Sharpe, writer and activist William C. Anderson, multidisciplinary artist Alexandra Bell, and art historian Kirsten P. Buick. Their conference centered on the detrimental effects of reproducing images of Black death, historicized by lynching photographs and postcards, and the unsettling resonance with contemporary circulations of police brutality footage.
Regarding the controversy around Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmet Till, which was displayed in the 2017 Whitney Museum Biennial, panelists discussed the murdered boy’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, and her choice to allow an image of Emmet’s brutalized face in an open casket on the cover of Jet Magazine. Her intention in permitting the photographs to be published was raising awareness about the horrors of white supremacy and helping to ignite the civil rights movement. Criticizing those who ignore the historical context of her decision to permit their own distribution of Black death images, Anderson poignantly said, “you’re not Mamie Till,” noting that “we can’t assume we know what everyone’s desires are for their bodies.”
On day three, December 6, Autry and Lee convened an intimate space for Black people to reflect on art and its relationship to anti-Black violence. Autry’s curatorial vision for the teach-in takes seriously the practice of self-care for Black people taking part in these discussions. Hopefully, art world professionals who attend the teach-in will glean a deeper understanding of care from the wisdom of the speakers. One major takeaway is that it is not just the exhibition of violent racist imagery, but the discussion of such topics, which can be deeply traumatizing to those from impacted communities.
On the fourth day of the teach-in, December 11, there will be a roundtable discussion on Developing a Practice of Collective Care, with Sheila Pree Bright, Amanda D. King, Kelli Morgan, Izetta Mobley, and Teressa Raiford, moderated by Autry and Lee, and accompanied by a live musical performance. On the final day of the teach-in, December 13, Autry and Lee will lead a workshop Build Your Practice of Care, with the purpose of strategizing methods for applying collective care to various real-world professional situations.
As the teach-in unfolds, it is apparent that the museum world must change in order to reflect the values of their communities. It is not a politically viable option to curate exhibitions that reproduce violent imagery without consent from victims and their communities. While the intention is to raise awareness, the impact is all too often a traumatic one for those who are affected by racist terror. As we are all inundated with images of police brutality circulating on social media and the news, the museum should not operate on an assumption that displaying violent imagery will shock white people into activism, as opposed to reproducing the spectacle of Black death, which is always prone to a voyeuristic gaze.
There is more to come from the Black Liberation Center, including events, exhibitions, and workshops. Under Autry’s guidance, the programming gives voice to an astute vision for what the art world can become through structural change mobilized by anti-racist, community-led principles.
Correction 12/10 10:55pm EST: An earlier version of this article included a misspelled version of Kirsten P. Buick’s name. We regret the error.
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Author: Alexandra M. Thomas