Dust and Rainbows: FRONT’s Message, So Far
Sometimes the news is not all dust and rainbows.
FRONT Triennial’s announcement earlier this week was pretty straightforward: Co-chief-curator Prem Krishnamurthy opened the proceedings by leading the crowd in relaxation exercises during which most of the 148 people closed their eyes, put their arms above their heads, and counted to sixty. Then, in a presentation with slides, he introduced the FRONT Creative Team, gave some background on the graphics that will brand the exhibit, moderated a discussion, and took questions from the crowd.
The title for the 2021 edition of the international art triennial in Cleveland will be an adaptation of a line from poet Langston Hughes: “Oh, Gods of Dust and Rainbows.” And the theme the creative team means to explore is that art can be “an agent of transformation, a mode of healing, and a therapeutic process,” reflecting that Cleveland in recent decades has “traded [its] titans of industry for titans of medicine.” They mean for the exhibits to be informed by seminal moments in the city’s history, such as the fire on the Cuyahoga, the outmigration of people and capital, the “ongoing cycle of repair, spanning crisis and recovery.”
The most important messages, however, had to do with FRONT’s apparent willingness to take up big challenges for an art triennial: to deal with racial inequity, and to better connect with people who are not already wired into the art triennial world. It’s not that anyone overtly stated this was in the plans. But the evidence was there.To wit: the announcement was made not at one of FRONT’s partner institutions, which are all the major art museums in the region, but instead at Karamu House, which of course is not only the oldest African American theatre in the US, but is also the place where many of Langston Hughes’ plays were first produced.
That title, incidentally, is not quite a direct quote from Hughes: the poet’s original use of the word “God” was singular. The FRONT team made it plural to “signify a plurality of beliefs.” Given this moment in Cleveland history, that seems like a good idea.
Krishnamurthy introduced a panel comprising most of FRONT’s artistic team—Associate curator Meghana Karnick, curatorial assistant Lo Smith, Evelyn Burnett of ThirdSpace Action Lab, moCa chief curator Courtenay Finn, and Cleveland Museum of Art curator Emily Liebert. That’s a diverse group, coming from a lot of different backgrounds.
In the panel discussion, the team was asked to talk about the Triennial, its theme, their visions and roles. Evelyn Burnett reminded the crowd that Harry Bellafonte once told her that artists are gatekeepers of truth, and she noted that sometimes that meant hard truth that people don’t always want to hear. She pointed out that she had read that the first iteration of FRONT in 2018 had a $31 million impact on the region.
“Thirty-one million for whom?” She asked.
Speaking of the curatorial role, Courtenay Finn said she found herself asking, “what does it mean to have a more vulnerable relationship to knowledge? I think caring and wanting to listen and learn are important to curation.”
Curatorial assistant Lo Smith pointed to some very basic inequities in Cleveland. “I think of health disparities,” they said. They then asked the crowd by show of hands if anyone had been to Woodland cemetery. Few had. They told of an effort to find the un-marked grave of a Black man there.
The juxtaposition of a high profile, thoroughly documented event like FRONT with the fact that a civil war veteran’s grave in one our most important historical cemeteries would be unmarked was a stark portrait of the kind of inequity Cleveland faces. And we all know it didn’t end in the past.
After the presentation, Krishnamurthy took questions gathered on slips of paper from the crowd. Among the questions: “Where does all the money go?”
With a significant number of Cleveland artists in the room, it was a well-pointed question. Evelyn Burnett fielded: “I will be watching where the money goes.”
Moments like that cause me to say FRONT 2021 is off to a good start. At least at the announcement of the theme on a night at Karamu, this creative team seems comfortable with the need to deal with questions like that, to be at least a little vulnerable, and in front of 148 people, to recognize the urgency that comes with them.
Two Somewhat Different Epigrams (1957)
By Langston Hughes
Oh, God of dust and rainbows, help us see
That without dust the rainbow would not be.
I look with awe upon the human race
And God, who sometimes spits right in its face