Start Here: In Curatorial Residency, MOCHA Creates Opportunity for Artists of Color
In spring of 2021, Antwoine Washington and Michael C. Russell’s organization MoCHA—the Museum of Creative Human Art—was a part of Imagine Otherwise, a series of exhibitions presented by moCa, curated by LaTanya Autry. That connection grew into a curatorial residency—MoCHA at moCa—giving Washington and Russell a prominent platform for their work, advocating and creating exhibit opportunities for Black artists. –ed.
Antwoine Washington and Michael C. Russell share a two-fold conviction about the arts, and about the crucial importance of artists of color in America. They believe the radical transformative force of creative activity can spark an awakening within creators, and that they can pass that fire to others. That may be what all artists believe, more or less, but for Washington and Russell there’s a more explicit equation: in America, where systemic racism persists over generations, the works of Black artists—especially explicitly autobiographical works showing what it is (and isn’t) like to live, work and raise a family in America—can begin (at least) to overturn prejudiced perceptions.
This may not be a new idea, but the implementation at the level of museum programming has been somewhere between half-hearted and nonexistent. But since July, 2021, Washington and Russell, under the auspices of their organization MoCHA, have been in curatorial residency at moCa—Cleveland’s University Circle jewel box of a venue for contemporary art. The residency came into being through conversations between Washington, Russell, and Megan Lykins Reich, who was then the organization’s interim executive director. She has since been appointed to the full directorship. (See her interview with Henry Adams in this issue of CAN.)
During the residency, MoCHA has programmed the Toby Devan Lewis Gallery. The first in their series of exhibitions was Aawful Aaron (July 16 – August 15, 2021) , a show of drawings, paintings, and sculpture by Cleveland-based artist Aaron D. Williams. The show included a drawing of Collinwood High School and cover art for a CD by Cleveland Arts Prize-winning band Mourning [A] BLKstar, but most prominently featured works that used the stress and conflict of sports as an analogue for the mental health struggles of a Black man. Exhibits that followed were Stina Aleah’s “Helping” Hands (August 27 – September 26, 2021) , Lawrence Baker’s Taking Another Look (October 8 – November 7, 2021) , and Terry Joshua’s The Pinkest Hue (November 19, 2021 – January 2, 2022) . Most recently, they exhibited Sincerely, Us (January 29-March 6, 2022), a collection of prints by self-taught photographer Ryan Harris, telling tales of Black experience. It is his third solo show. Later in the year, fiber artist Honey Pierre will be featured (March – April 2022) , and after that a group show of Cleveland artists (May-June, 2022) co-curated by Davon Brantley and the MoCHA group. By the end of their term, they will have presented seven exhibitions.
In a recent conversation Washington recounted the decisions and events that led him to co-found the new organization about four years ago. Washington himself is a successful, emerging visual and conceptual artist in his thirties who received a BA in studio art in 2014 from Louisiana’s Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge. His paintings, drawings and installation works have recently been shown at moCa and the Akron Art Museum. The other pioneer of the MoCHA experiment is longtime friend Michael C. Russell, an award-winning motivational speaker and counselor in the Cleveland area.
Washington was born and graduated high school in Pontiac, MI, a suburb of Metro Detroit, where he and his cousin Russell originally became friends. He attended college on a basketball scholarship, but injured his knee badly enough to withdraw from sports permanently. Fortunately, he had been interested since childhood in popular cartoon styles and character representations. That led him to take art classes, honing his drawing skills and gaining knowledge of studio practices and art history. In 2004 he transferred to Southern University as a second-year student. He began thinking of becoming an artist. He married a woman he met at Southern, and the young couple moved to Cleveland—her hometown—where they began a family.
Washington still hesitated to jump into a precarious career as an exhibiting artist, working instead for four hard years as a mail carrier. But in the end, the need to devote more time to his art and make use of his education won out. Friends like Russell encouraged him to seek exhibition opportunities. Their talks about actively promoting Washington’s own work turned to the needs of other Black artists. They soon realized that an advocacy organization which could successfully approach institutional venues, like moCa, on a more equal footing was indispensable. At this point in 2018, Fate seemingly intervened, bringing Washington’s USPS job to a full stop. He suffered a major stroke, leaving him without feeling on one side of his body for some weeks, followed by a long road to full recovery. He had the time and the clarity to start a new chapter in his life, as independent artist and arts advocate.
Washington and Russell have a sense of proportion about their mission, but are mindful of its urgent timeliness. The inspiration, the moment of opportunity is now, at this fraught time when the facts of racism as a persisting and intractable systemic condition are all too clear, laid bare at last in public discourse. In our current situation, putting Black art front and center in our majority-Black city does feel like a brilliantly different, logical, and just approach to the decades of neglect and tokenism typical of museum shows, surveys, and acquisitions. MoCHA—through this residency at moCa, and going forward—means to create a larger, more responsive and consistent place for artists of color amid the institutional brokering of contemporary art in Cleveland.