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Trauma In Art Raises Questions

Fallout from the cancellation of an exhibition featuring images of violence against Black people has raised issues in the art world.  Cleveland’s Museum of Contemporary Art, moCa, said it didn’t want to traumatize community members. Efforts are being made to find a middle ground between art and trauma.

The death of a child can be a powerful symbol. Few know this better than Samaria Rice. Her 12-year-old son, Tamir, was shot by a Cleveland police officer in Cudell Park on the city’s West Side six years ago. Since then, the boy’s name and image have traveled around the world in news reports, on protest signs and in works of art.

Even the gazebo where Tamir was killed has become a memorial object. When the structure was relocated to the Stoney Island Arts Bank in Chicago, Samaria Rice was a keynote speaker.

“Tamir’s going to be always remembered all over the world,” she said. “I have many, many projects all over the world, because of the death of my son.”

Samaria Rice speaking at the 2019 dedication of the relocated gazebo in Chicago [Rebuild Foundation]

And she’s tried to stay in control of that legacy. Cleveland photographer and community activist Amanda King is helping Samaria Rice with that mission

“Ms. Rice doesn't just, you know, respond to emails and say, 'yes, you can do a project about my son,'” said King. “It's talking with the artist: ‘That's not what Tamir was like. That's not what he looked like. That's not what happened.’ You know? She truly is creating her own lane in the art world to preserve Tamir's legacy.”

In 2018, when Chicago artist Michael Rakowitz created an exhibition based on Tamir Rice at Cleveland’s SPACES gallery, he made the effort to run his plans by Samaria Rice. Rakowitz even cooked her a meal – a tradition from his Iraqi heritage.

“I cooked that lunch with dates, with the spices,” he said. “And I told Ms. Rice that it's very clear to me that, as an artist who is not from that community in Cleveland and somebody who can never, ever know the pain, that it wasn't for me to do this project on my own., and I would not be doing this unless she wanted me to do it.”

Breaking bread together is one way to get approval for an art project, but sometimes those connections don’t happen at all. Images of Tamir Rice are ubiquitous and the security camera video footage of the boy’s shooting is all over the internet. A couple frames from that video were the basis for drawings by Brooklyn artist Shaun Leonardo as a part of his exhibition “The Breath of Empty Space.” The show features images of violence against Black people at the hands of law enforcement. moCa had booked the show to open in Cleveland last month, but then canceled it. A public statement from the museum said: "We encountered troubling community response that suggested at this time we were not prepared to engage with the lived experiences of pain and trauma that the work evokes."

Last week, on the NPR program, “The Takeaway,” Leonardo expressed his disappointment with not being consulted about the cancellation.

“It's not necessarily that they arrived at this decision, because I could have arrived at a very similar decision as to how to host this exhibition or invite audiences in,” he said. “It’s that I was excluded from the process entirely.”

But, by the same token, Samaria Rice was not included in Leonardo’s decision to use the image of her son’s death in his drawing. Princeton Emeritus Professor of History Nell Painter said the artist was under no legal obligation to consult with Rice, but there could have been a conversation.

She doesn't have that right,” said Painter. “But clearly, that does not suffice. That does not do.”

Dr. Nell Painter [Robin Holland]

The museum later apologized for the cancellation, but Painter said that if efforts had been made to build explanatory programming around the exhibition and to foster a dialog between the artist and Rice, this whole controversy might have been avoided.

“There's no way of making everybody happy with American imagery of race,” she said. “However, it's important to realize that you can do homework, you can do groundwork in ways that make flare ups less likely.”

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