This past weekend, the Cleveland community celebrated what would have been Tamir Rice’s 18th birthday. His mother, Samaria Rice, organized the small event for local kids, handing out gift bags and celebrating his life with her family and community. Born on June 25, 2002, the 12-year-old boy was murdered by former Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann in the autumn of 2014.
Samaria Rice is now a vocal advocate for education and legislative reform, raising awareness about police brutality and legislative corruption that allows offending officers to go unpunished. After establishing the Tamir Rice Foundation, she founded the Tamir Rice Afrocentric Cultural Center, which will serve local youth as a place of after-school education and arts programs when it opens.
In a conversation last month with Hyperallergic, Rice shared that in recent years she has collaborated with a number of artists on projects memorializing her son and other victims of police violence. She celebrated artists like Theaster Gates — who aided her efforts to relocate and create a memorial out of the gazebo where her son was killed — and EJ Hill and Michael Rakowitz, who she says have uplifted her son’s life in their artworks.
But recently, she has denounced a number of artistic projects that she believes improperly interpret her son’s legacy and contribute to the ongoing pain of her and her family. (She filed for a trademark of her son’s name on February 19, 2016, with the United States Patent and Trademark Office to avoid its misuse.) She shared her distress at artists utilizing her son’s image without her approval, saying that unsanctioned use of her son’s image has had a profound impact on her family. A now-canceled exhibition planned for her home city particularly disconcerted her.
The Breath of Empty Space, a solo show of work by artist Shaun Leonardo, would have featured a charcoal drawing depicting Tamir’s final moments. Hosted by the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland (moCa), the show was going to center illustrated scenes of police brutality, featuring images in which the body of the victim is rendered as a blank void. But just months ahead of its opening, the museum canceled it. The institution cited a “troubling community response” that brought them to decide “we were not prepared to engage with the lived experiences of pain and trauma that the work evokes,” according to the New York Times.
On the intended opening day of the exhibition, June 6, Leonardo — who identifies as Afro-Latinx — wrote an open letter about the cancellation, denouncing the decision as censorship. “I must make it clear that I was never given the opportunity to be included in outreach, and therefore, never had a moment to engage any community member regarding the show,” he wrote. “What has become evident to me is that after grave mishandling of communication regarding the exhibition, institutional white fragility led to an act of censorship.”
In response, the museum’s director, Jill Snyder, released a statement of apology to the artist; it was subsequently updated to include more detailed information about the decision, at Leonardo’s urging. Many members of the art world rallied around Leonardo in support. Snyder, the museum’s director of 23 years, resigned weeks later, citing reasons unrelated to Leonardo’s exhibition. (Leonardo and Snyder both declined to provide on-the-record comment for this article.)
“We received feedback from a few voices in the activist community who advised that this presentation at moCa could stir trauma, leading to pain and harm. This was echoed by moCa staff members,” Snyder wrote. She continued:
In responding to this feedback, regretfully we did not engage Mr. Leonardo in creating space for dialogue and debate. We did not expand the conversation within our community. We prevented ourselves and our community from having the difficult and urgent conversations that contemporary art seeks to advance. Our actions impacted Mr. Leonardo, the curator John Chaich, and many others negatively. We are sorry.”
MoCa, when contacted, declined to provide additional comment.
But Rice, and other members of the Cleveland community, see it differently. Rice’s lawyer, Billy Joe Mills, has recently communicated Rice’s wish that Leonardo no longer exhibit the artwork featuring her son.
“I don’t know why would anybody want to explore the pain, the pain of the family, the pain of myself, in such a horrific way,” Rice told Hyperallergic. “I’m not happy to see that people want to use what happened to my son, the last image of my son, as a piece of art to look at, let me just say that.”
The Breath of Empty Space had been previously displayed at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. Prior to its planned opening in Cleveland, local activist and artist Amanda King expressed her concern about the exhibition with the museum. (At the time, King was Samaria Rice’s consultant, a role she had held since 2016 and into early 2020.)
Ahead of the Cleveland opening, Leonardo wrote a letter that he hoped would reach Rice; he gave it to the museum’s curator Courtenay Finn, who then passed it along to King. (Hyperallergic has not obtained a copy of this letter.) As her consultant at the time, King chose not to share the letter with Rice, believing it would further her grief; she instead relayed to the museum that the exhibition would cause prolonged harm to the Rice family and the Cleveland community.
King, who runs a Cleveland-based arts activism organization called Shooting Without Bullets, believes the museum’s apology stating it did not consult with enough community members oversimplifies the issue to “black and white.” She continued, “And I think that’s harmful. I think that we’re talking about more education, we’re talking about more understanding of anti-Black art versus anti-racist movement.”
“Bodies of the victims of police brutality, in their last moments — that’s literally the premise of the show,” she told Hyperallergic, adding:
We’re respected as it is, [as] scholars and caregivers in our community, and moCa is sort of showing a blatant disregard to who we are and making a majority argument that they should have consulted with a majority of Black people in Cleveland. And that’s really ironic because they don’t do that at all for any show. So why would this show be different? We are not a monolith, but we do have parallel experience because of structural racism.
“I totally identify with the artist’s desire to have tough conversations. And we indirectly experience a lot of pain because of state-sanctioned violence as Black people. But we don’t get to open the casket,” King said. She continued:
That is the family’s decisions to show the most egregious parts of their loved ones’ last moments. We can be pallbearers, we can carry the weight of it and we can respond to it. But showing grotesque images that are then reduced to the point where you can’t even see them. I think that’s not really furthering the conversation and it’s certainly an act of opening the casket that shouldn’t be done.
Likewise, LaTanya Autry, the Gund Curatorial Fellow at moCa, expressed her discomfort with the exhibition’s organization, believing the work had not been properly contextualized.
“My own scholarship is on lynching imagery, which I’ve been studying for about 13 years,” Autry explained. Autry, who is Black, says she was not invited to meetings throughout the process of organizing, or canceling, the exhibition. She also noted that she did not see the work of scholars who contend with images of suffering — such as Courtney Baker, Saidiya Hartman, and Christina Sharpe — properly reflected in the exhibition materials. When she shared these concerns with museum staff, she says she was disregarded.
I was just asking questions and thinking about what does that mean actually within a white museum space, the type of being under a white gaze? And just lots of questions like that. And the fact that the folks who took this show [on] weren’t actually aware of the scholarship. They weren’t aware of these broader contexts. There was no awareness of scaffolding of care that would be necessary for all of our community members, including our staff.
Commenting on the museum’s role specifically, she questioned: “Have we done the internal work to think about and actually actualize equity in terms of race and other types of violence that happen?”
As the exhibition’s planning moved forward, Autry continued to raise questions about the exhibition’s organization process.
“There are a lot of people who really do believe in that kind of idea of empathetic response that people will have to artwork, and in particular looking at images of Black suffering,” she said. “And it can do that at times, and it also can do other things. It can become a type of pornographic looking, as well, and become a very violent space.”
In the wake of the exhibition’s cancellation, Autry has ideas about how conversations in the museum space could progress, which she hopes to pursue in the future. “It’s imperative that moCa take on these issues in a responsible, community-centered way, grounded in open and honest discussions,” she said. “In particular, I’d like to organize and participate in a symposium at moCa that engages the deeper, nuanced issues of racism at play here and within the broader museum field. I’m thinking this gathering would include artists, moCa’s institutional leaders, and key scholars of trauma imagery, Black Studies, and museums.”
Of the cancellation, King remarked:
Again, I do see parallels between all of this reductive performance, Shaun’s aesthetic, and [his] reducing the bodies of victims of police brutality and their last moment to moCa’s choice to reduce the voices of the Black women who said this isn’t a good idea and gave very balanced and weighted reasons for why, including that, the interest of Ms. Rice and ultimately her support of not showing Shaun’s work.
In the weeks following the museum’s apology, Rice has requested that Leonardo no longer display his charcoal illustrations of Tamir’s last moments. Noting the discourse around censorship, Mills, her lawyer, explained:
The censorship side of things is not something that I take lightly. And so I do appreciate that that’s part of this story […] Really our request for any artist out there is simply to come to Ms. Rice first before publishing to ask for permission and to just have a friendly conversation with her and introduce themselves. We’re certainly not out there filing lawsuits and against all kinds of artists or anything like that.
Mills continued, “Most artists, or really every artist that I’ve communicated with, has really expressed a lot of deference to Ms. Rice’s wishes and concern for her wellbeing in terms of how their art might impact her. And in this instance, it seems like Mr. Leonardo has a different mindset than that.”
“Shaun’s art presents important issues in nuanced and sometimes difficult ways,” Leonardo’s lawyer said in a statement. “We are working with the Rice family attorneys to ensure that artistic expressions of newsworthy events can be undertaken. Shaun remains firm in his belief that art exists to challenge and thereby encourage difficult and necessary conversation and debate.”
In recent weeks, Rice has spoken out about her feelings concerning her son’s depiction in popular media and art; her primary ask is that those replicating her son’s likeness do so with her permission.
“Who wants to see the death of their loved one, their child, and in an art show? Really? I don’t find that too appealing to the eye,” Rice reflected in her conversation with Hyperallergic. “Who would want to use the image of a 12-year-old being murdered as art? That’s no type of art for me. That’s the last image that I have of my son, period.”
“This year is special because he’s 18 and he would have been able to vote for the first time. Instead of me doing social media events, I should have been doing prom or getting him ready for college, but I’m too busy fighting artisans, and some of these activists that want to do things in memory of my son, and don’t even have the audacity to reach out to me,” said Rice.