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Cleveland Activists Counter Shaun Leonardo’s Censorship Allegations

Following the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland’s decision last month to cancel Shaun Leonardo’s exhibition “The Breath of Empty Space,” two activists have shared their account of the controversy. The show, which premiered in January at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, was to include charcoal drawings of police killing Black and Latino men, including depictions of Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and Walter Scott, and the park where twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was killed by the Cleveland police in 2014. Samaria Rice, the mother of Tamir Rice, has since served Leonardo with a cease-and-desist order to stop him from exhibiting the work related to Rice’s killing and to remove it from his website, according to Artnet.

Upon learning of the exhibition, Amanda King and Samaria Rice approached the museum with concerns about the material being presented and its lack of an “ethic of care.” Following these complaints and others from members of the museum’s staff, Jill Snyder, then MoCA’s director, called off the show and resigned ten days later, after twenty-three years at the helm of the institution. “I embrace this as an opportunity to advance the movement for change that is now sweeping through our culture,” she told the New York Times.

Following an apology from the museum, Leonardo charged the museum with censorship. The museum then issued a second apology for having failed to include Leonardo in the decision-making process, and for having “prevented ourselves and our community from having the difficult and urgent conversations that contemporary art seeks to advance.” In a new statement issued this week, Leonardo criticized MoCA for failing to include him in community outreach. “After grave mishandling of communication regarding the exhibition, institutional white fragility led to an act of censorship,” he said.

King and Rice, who were not mentioned by name in either of MoCA’s statements, object to the narratives presented by both the artist and the museum, which they allege place Leonardo in a position to gain “clout from being censored for a police brutality show by a white institution,” Artnet reports. For the past year, both activists have been at work creating the Tamir Rice Afrocentric Cultural Center in northeast Cleveland. The center will host after-school arts and culture programs and provide space for local organizing.

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