Shaun Leonardo, Freddy Pereira (3 of 3), 2019, charcoal on paper with mirrored tint on frame Courtesy of the artist
Five months after the Museum of Contemporary Art (moCa) Cleveland cancelled an exhibition of Shaun Leonardos evocative drawings of Black victims of systemic injustice, two museums have stepped up to host the show.
The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) in North Adams announced today that Shaun Leonardo: The Breath of Empty Space would open on Wednesday and run through 22 December and then travel to the Bronx Museum of the Arts, where it will open on 20 January.
The cancellation of the Cleveland exhibition, which originally was to open on June, was denounced as “institutional white fragility” and “censorship” by Leonardo, a Brooklyn-based multidisciplinary artist who is also known for highly charged performance works. The museums executive director, Jill Snyder, publicly apologised to Leonardo, acknowledging that “we failed” the artist, and the controversy ultimately led her to resign after 23 years at the helm.
The drawings in the show, culled by the independent curator John Chaich, explore the visual narrative of violence against Black men in the US, often at the hands of police, revealing how the cycle of news media images shape and blur perceptions and memories of those events. It originated at the Maryland Institute College of Art (Mica) in Baltimore in January before the Cleveland museum added it to its exhibition schedule and then dropped it.
In an interview, Leonardo said that Mass MoCA and the Bronx museum reached out to him about presenting the show at the height of the controversy in June, when he lamented the shows derailed opening in a brief note to colleagues and supporters. In his statement, which was widely disseminated, Leonardo challenged the Cleveland museums rationale that the exhibition could be harmful because the local community was not equipped to deal with his images of “lived experiences of pain and trauma”. He pointed out then that he “was never given the opportunity to be included in outreach, and therefore, never had a moment to engage any community member regarding the show”.
Responding to the cancellation, he says, curators at Mass MoCA and the Bronx museum who had already worked with Leonardo on other initiatives reached out to him. “They were willing to invite the tension in, and create space for the critical dialogue around the work”, the artist explains.
Leonardo says he does not particularly view the shows rescheduling as vindication. Instead, he says, he has been heartened by the debate that the shows cancellation triggered about invoking trauma in works of art and about “who owns” initiatives like the cancelled exhibition.
Leonardo says he was moved to see that the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police in May prompted people who had viewed the show in Baltimore to start posting his works online. All of the art predated Floyds death, “but to see that people found solace and sought to look for meaning and intentionality in that work was touching,” he says.
The artist says he began working on the drawings in The Breath of Empty Space in 2014, starting with a depiction of part of the face of Trayvon Martin, a Black 17-year-old who was shot to death in 2012 by a civilian “neighbourhood watch” patroller in a gated community.
Shaun Leonardo, Trayvon (2014-2017) Courtesy of the artist
“It is a space to grapple with those [news] images in personal terms, as a person who feels threatened, as a person who feels afraid for my children,” says Leonardo, the father of a 13-year-old stepdaughter and 4-year-old daughter. “I needed a place to sit with Trayvons image outside the media noise.”
“These media images are always accompanied by noise from surveillance footage, cellphone footage, dashcam footage,” he adds. The artist aims to get past the noise: “I started to look at this footage differently to gather my own meaning,” Leonardo says. “I do often think about and question not only what stories are being conveyed, but which stories as selected by the media get locked in our collective memory.”
He points to images of the so-called Central Park Five, five Black New York teenagers who were convicted of rape and assault in a 1989 attack on a jogger and served years in prison before they were exonerated. In his own Central Park 5 series, he features courtroom images of various people involved in the case. They call to mind a courtroom photograph of a row of five boys that Leonardo says was widely distributed in the media but actually pictured only two of the five defendants because three others were scattered around the room. “You get to better analyse what those bodies were doing, how those gazes were being directed, most specifically for me the way the audience, the judge, court officers—no one was paying attention to those boys,” Leonardo says. “They were being devalued continuously.”
Shaun Leonardo, Central Park 5 (Drawing 5 of 5), 2017 Collection of Manon Slome, No Longer Empty
Another work by the artist, consisting of two images, records the 2014 killing of Laquan McDonald by a Chicago police officer, based on dashboard camera images. “In the first image, what you see is a manipulation of an image in which all you can take in and internalise is the row of police cars that at that scene dealing with a single Black body,” the artist says. That led to the second drawing, in which Leonardo emphasises that McDonald was simply walking down the street when he was shot—and underlines the long range at which the officer chose to shoot.
Shaun Leonardo, Laquan McDonald (Drawing 1 of 2), 2016 Courtesy of the artist Read More – Source
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