Where We Overlap: The Motion Picture, “The Story We Have To Tell”
What makes an event worthy of documentary film? Of course the answer can be the story-telling as much as the subject, and the substance as much as the newsworthy moment. Where We Overlap: The Motion Picture is a documentary by Cleveland-based director Wayne Smith III, which appeared on the Local Heroes shorts program at the Cleveland International Film Festival. It’s built around an exhibition—Where We Overlap—which was curated by Davon Brantley at moCa Cleveland in 2022. Films from the festival, including this one, are available for streaming through April 9.
Brantley was charged with curating the show by Antwoine Washington and Michael C. Russell, whose organization Museum of Creative Human Art (MoCHA) was in an institutional residency at moCa from July 2021 through June, 2022. It’s worth noting that MoCHA exists to create opportunities for Black and Brown artists. Through the year of their residency at moCa–Cleveland’s most prestigious venue dedicated to contemporary art–they gave solo shows to multiple Black artists who had not had that chance at a major institution before. Where We Overlap was the final exhibition produced during that residency. (It was reviewed by Charlee Harris here.) Brantley seized the moment to spread the opportunity around, building a group show on the idea of collaboration. He brought together artists David Buttram, Kacey Gill, Jacques P. Jackson, Joyce Morrow Jones, Crystal Miller, Younghyeon Ryu, Lauren Sylvia, Derek Walker, and Aaron D. Williams, and organized them in small groups for collaboration.
There are hundreds of exhibitions each year in Cleveland, dozens of them at nonprofit museums, but documentaries of art exhibits here are scarce-to-non-existant. Regardless, in considering what makes a subject documentary-worthy, it’d be hard to argue against Where We Overlap. This was a big deal. It marks a moment in Cleveland’s art history when predominantly white institutions at least began to deal with their hegemony. Across the sector—and really across the nation—museums made efforts (sometimes feeble, surely with as many missed-steps as effective ones) to open up, support, highlight, employ, and otherwise deal with the fact that Black and Brown people have not had their due. Of all the ways art institutions have worked to atone for racial inequity, turning over curation of a gallery was one of the more notable measures here. It not only gives prominent exhibit space to Black artists, but provides curatorial experience and control. It’s worth noting that moCa’s practice of institutional residency to highlight marginalized communities of artists continues this year, in a relationship with the Julia de Burgos Cultural Arts Center.
Where We Overlap: The Motion Picture mentions the scarcity of exhibit spaces for Black and Brown artists, but does not dwell on that point. To do that would have been tempting, and easy, and in fact highly justified. People in Cleveland’s art scene know this because they have lived through it. A look back through ten years of CAN Journal makes the point. Five years into this project, of the 80-or-so self-selecting organizations that had contributed stories to our “Members Report” section, not one was owned or operated by People of Color. That was a reflection of the state of art institutions in town. In the five-plus years since then, the situation has dramatically improved, both in the actual landscape (multiple new BIPOC organizations have been born) and in the representation on these pages (with contributions from multiple BIPOC-led organizations in every issue), even if the imbalance is not yet rectified. And indeed, MoCHA’s institutional residency at moCa happened in the wake of a race-related incident that led its previous, long-time executive director to resign. That is the context in which Where We Overlap came into being.
But the title is not “Where We Are Marginalized,” or “Where We Don’t Get A Fair Chance,” or “Where For Our Entire Lives Our Contributions Have Been Dismissed.” Where We Overlap: The Motion Picture spends most of its time and gives most of its attention to the artists’ practices, and specifically to the idea of collaboration. Depending on relationships and egos, collaboration in art can be easy and synergistic, or it can be exceedingly difficult. The film opens with Brantley taking in finished work and considering how to lay the exhibition out, but then quickly shifts to artists in the early stages of creating the work, and discussing the challenge of collaboration. They talk about the city and their relationship to it. Moments are given to the artists talking about making work in a context of segregation by identity. As Kacey Gill (no relation) says, “That’s something I struggle with in my art. Blackness is commodified. Being a black artist who focuses on black experiences should be a beautiful experience that should be celebrated without becoming a trope, without becoming a check mark on the box.”
While that, too, is a subject worthy of a documentary itself, Where We Overlap invests more time in the artists’ processes, and their working habits. And that fact, too, is an important part of the process of reaching toward equity: that Black artists talk about ideas other than and in addition to being marginalized and being Black. Above all, artists are simply artists. Here the audience sees them talking about each other’s work, and sees the influence on the canvas—notably, for example, in the collaboration of David Buttram with Derek Walker: in his work Early Birds, Walker uses one of Buttram’s reference images–a characteristic scene, with two men talking on the street corner, but in his palette and painting style, makes it his own.
In describing the work and relationship, Walker says “In this piece, it seems like the morning time, two gentlemen sitting in front of some type of restaurant building … I am titling this piece Early Birds, because they seem to remind me of how my two grandfathers used to be, just outside somewhere chopping it up, and everybody would call them early birds. [ . . . ] Capturing these moments is super cool because you get to connect with people who have that same type of nostalgic feeling when they see people outside having fun.”
As Buttram says, “The works overlap because they have the same subject matter. That’s the story we have to tell.”
In many other exhanges between artists, we see how they interact, influence each other, and find common ground.
Where We Overlap is notable because it captures an important time and subject in Cleveland art history. It deals with the subject that was its occasion—the historic exclusion of Black artists from our museums, and the positive step this exhibit and residency represent—but then goes far beyond that as it shows the artists simply as artists, working with each other’s ideas and styles. The 27-minute film is also beautifully shot, and has an easily digestible pace that gives the subject a measure of time that is unusual in the treatment of Cleveland artists. It’s available for streaming in the final, online week of the Cleveland International Film Festival through Sunday, April 9.
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