A Bold New Show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland Calls Out the Institution’s Own ‘Consistent Anti-Black Practices’

The show takes place across three venues, including two led by Black exhibition organizers.

Imani Dennison, NO MAS—Irreversible Entanglements (2020). Courtesy the artist.

The Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland is magnifying and aiming to rectify its own “anti-Black practices” in an exhibition that opens this week.

Imagine Otherwise,” organized by LaTanya Autry, a curator-in-residence and co-organizer of the Museums Are Not Neutral advocacy group, takes place at MoCA and two Black-led Cleveland spaces, Third Space Action Lab and the Museum of Creative Human Art (MOCHA). On the roster are four artists: Imani Dennison, Amber N. Ford, Shikeith (who goes by one name), and Antwoine Washington, who is also MOCHA’s co-founder.

Remarkably, the museum’s own description of the show points an accusing finger at itself.

“Autry envisions possibilities beyond MoCA Cleveland’s consistent anti-Black practices by partnering with Black-led and centered organizations that regularly care for Black residents and others while challenged with far smaller budgets than many area white-led and centered arts institutions,” says the webpage devoted to the show.

It will be a “limited, yet hopefully, significant prodding for an authentic, community-led institutional reckoning of MoCA Cleveland.”

The Cleveland art world, Autry told Artnet News in a phone interview, is like “an apartheid system in a Black city. It’s outrageous. White institutions have multimillion-dollar budgets, and there are Black-led organizations that have zero dollars.” Her work, she explained, was a way of sharing the wealth.

The show owes its inspiration to Christina Sharpe’s acclaimed 2016 book In the Wake: On Blackness and Being.

“I read her book a couple of years ago and thought right away I’d like to do an exhibition exploring the ideas in the book,” Autry said. “Though the show ended up changing with Covid, I love what we did because I ended up thinking more deeply about what Sharpe calls ‘wake work’ in terms of the curatorial practice.”

Shikeith, <i>still waters run deep</i>, 2021. Courtesy the artist.

Shikeith, still waters run deep (2021). Courtesy the artist.

Shikeith’s art forms the core of the exhibition’s concept, and gets the largest gallery, for an installation dealing with “Black queer re-making” as a sacred space. Dennison will show a film shot in Johannesburg presenting an Afro-Futurist vision.

Ford’s photographic work, meanwhile, expresses “the vast geography of Black ways of being,” and Washington will show an installation that uses sculptural table settings to comment on the promised, but not always delivered, “seat at the table” offered to Black people in America.

The exhibition comes during a nationwide reckoning in which art museums are being called to account for their histories, including being led and staffed overwhelmingly by white people and neglecting the work of Black artists. Autry herself is the first on-staff Black curator organizing exhibitions in the history of the institution. (There was previously a Black curator of public programs, Deidre McPherson).

MoCA occupies a prominent place in that very reckoning. In June, very shortly after the police killing of George Floyd ignited protests worldwide, it emerged that the museum had canceled an exhibition of works that depicted police brutality by the Afro-Latin artist Shaun Leonardo.

The museum indicated that some Black staff and Black community members had opposed the show, and Samaria Rice, whose 12-year-old son Tamir was killed by police in Cleveland in 2014, sent Leonardo a cease-and-desist letter demanding he not show drawings of Tamir. The current presentation of the show, at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, does not include those images.

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