IMAGINE OTHERWISE, OTHERWISE IMAGINED
Review by Vince Robinson
Places for art can be found in a myriad of eclectic spaces. Curator / organizer LaTanya Autry’s Imagine Otherwise, presented by moCa Cleveland, creatively demonstrates what happens when boundaries are stretched beyond the figurative and literal walls in Cleveland’s art ecosystem. The show challenges the status quo and offers opportunities for artists and patrons who, for a variety of reasons, often find themselves on the outside the walls. Autry is George Gund Foundation Curator-in-Residence at moCa, and the first Black, on-staff curator in the organization’s 52-year history.
The exhibition includes a trio of shows at different locations, including Cleveland’s Museum of Contemporary Art. The crown jewel of the triad occupies the 4th floor of the gleaming museum at 11400 Euclid Avenue in the epicenter of Cleveland’s cultural, educational, and medical footprint. Installed there is still waters / fall in your ways, a provocative exploration by Philadelphia artist Shikeith.
Anchored by a full-scale replica of a ship, presumably one that would have carried human cargo from West African shores to the Americas, its sails double as screens that cinematically display the complexities of the psyche of the queer Black male. Images of a young Black boy’s gender-bending choreography are combined with 24-frames-per-second projection of grown men of African descent wrestling in stark nakedness.
It is an immersive experience that swallows the participant in the sound of struggle expressed in the poetry and music cascading from speakers in the expansive gallery on the crown floor. As you enter the space, each stride provides a chance for eyes to see the words floating to ears below. The immersion gives context to the conflict expressed by the images and the associated discomfort. It is a reference to the idea that birthed the exhibition.
Imagine Otherwise was inspired by Christina Sharpe’s widely praised In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, a deeply thoughtful examination of cultural representations of daily Black life and a quest for survival in the aftermath of a transatlantic voyage. The multi-layered metaphor of the wake and the ship reveal her skillful, probing understanding of words and their associations with the struggle that continues, fueled by the ship that operates with an engine of racism.
As she defines it, “Wake: the track left on the water’s surface by a ship; the disturbance caused by a body swimming or moved, in water; it is the air currents behind a body in flight; a region of disturbed flow.”
The repetition of this theme permeates her writing and resonates in every aspect of this three-site exhibition that takes anti-Blackness head on. The hold of the ship exemplifies punishment, containment, and regulation existing in a climate of white supremacy and anti-Blackness that abbreviates the lives of the descendants of Africans in the wake.
The title of the exhibition was derived from the text of Sharpe’s book. Shikeith brilliantly fuses the chosen genres of cinema, song, poetry, and sculpture to provide a harbor in which to anchor her interpretative excellence.
Outside of the museum, the West Side installation of Antwoine Washington’s And Yeah, About That Seat at the Table clearly illustrates the beauty and value of exploring art within the context of everyday life inextricably linked to the Black experience in a way that defies common perception and illuminates the triumphs, tragedies, and challenges of integrating into a non-accepting society.
The show rests in the quaint confines of the Museum of Creative Human Art (MOCHA), co-founded by the artist and featuring his multimedia approach to storytelling. As one chapter of Autry’s explorative Imagine Otherwise, it extends beyond the walls of moCa’s University Circle castle into Cleveland-area neighborhoods.
It occupies space above Mahall’s 20 Lanes, a performance venue and bowling alley on Madison Avenue in Lakewood. After passing through the venue, one climbs a hardwood staircase to ascend to living space that serves as its home, where a table of coins and hundred-dollar bills lie quietly, screaming irony. It is the biting wit of the artist who uses them to illustrate a consistent theme resonating through various works. The murals, mixed media, and thoughtfully placed objects in what could be seen as living space resonate with one who can relate to life in this country through the lens of the African American experience.
A black and white flag provides the backdrop for the intra-racial struggle within America. Two pairs of melanin-rich hands bleed into the rope that denotes intra-racial conflict and the continual tug of war for survival fueled by a system that uses capital consumption as a control mechanism.
The faces of Shirley Chisholm, Coretta Scott King, Fannie Lou Hamer, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Nina Simone, and an unidentified woman—whose image dominates the fixture supervised by the figure of a Sankofa bird—subtly speak to another consistent theme: freedom.
Another mural conspicuously claims an additional entire wall in the space that was formerly a dining room. From its custom cabinet bench, one can observe the image of a young African American boy facing himself in his mirror image 93 million miles away, clenched upraised black fists frame FREE, punctuating his imagined arrival at the finish line.
In the adjoining living room, objects beckon attention. The shelf next to the fireplace sports a turntable. On the floor, a crate of records welcomes a glance at The Blackbyrds album peeking through the sides.
This art feels like home. It has reminders of the conflicts and traumas inflicted by the Founding Fathers. It adds descendants of the witnesses and unwilling participants in human cargo for sale in the New World. For a taste of it, the table awaits.
Across town nestled in another historic building is the third space of the trilogy of offerings in Imagine Otherwise. Doctors and lawyers once practiced in the Professional Building hugging the edge of Glenville and the adjoining University Circle museum gems. It’s now home to the ThirdSpace Action Lab’s gallery, featuring Amber N. Ford’s Strands, Tracks & Naps and Imani Dennison’s NO MAS – Irreversible Entanglements.
In the midst of a pandemic, the scale of this exhibition welcomes visitors to inhale another scent of the Black experience. Ford’s work warmly embraces hair in natural textures that defy the aesthetic chosen by default in conventional culture with a collage of images of melanin hues. Delivered in mixed media, hair speaks a language that beams with pride and unapologetic authenticity.
The sole masculine figure in her collection of follicular magnificence sports none at all, in further contrast to the overall theme. Perhaps the point was to prove that there could be beauty, even in its absence.
In the same space, Dennison’s short eight-minute film NO MAS – Irreversible Entanglements shows continuously on the wall-mounted screen that sings with Africa/Brass over flashbacks of the past and glances at an imagined future. Serious Black faces float through the future in space helmets encountering an all too familiar resistance.
Again, melanin in motion navigates a hostile environment, wrestling with a conflict for which an end is called. As depicted, young and old endure the pangs of colonialism and the political turmoil that defines life on planet Earth.
In its brevity, it is extremely imaginative–perhaps a fitting end of a tour that began with a proverbial slave ship and ended on the west wall of the ThirdSpace Action Lab on a television screen with an eye towards the future. Cinematic visions of the days to come are often devoid of Black imagery, as are museums and galleries in this city and across the country.
Imagine Otherwise challenges all to otherwise imagine.
Imagine Otherwise is on view February 18 through June 6, 2021 at moCa Cleveland, MOCHA Cleveland, and ThirdSpace Action Lab.
Note: The MOCHA Cleveland installation is now at Larchmere Arts, 12726 Larchmere Blvd, Cleveland, accessible by appointment only. To schedule an appointment contact firstname.lastname@example.org.