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Media Scholar On Canceled moCa Art Exhibition On Police Violence

"Trayvon," 2014-2017. A mirrored tint on the frame allows viewer to see their own reflection in the image [Shaun Leonardo]
The eyes of Florida teen Trayvon Martin stare at the viewer from beneath his iconic hoodie

Cleveland’s Museum of Contemporary Art (moCa) canceled a summer exhibition by New York artist Shaun Leonardo, “The Breath of Empty Space.” The reason given was that its drawings of Black and Brown victims of police violence could be traumatizing to local viewers. News of the cancelation sparked national attention as people are speaking out against police brutality and racism around the world.

Leonardo’s charcoal drawings show images of men and boys of color who lost their lives at the hands of the police. For instance, in one drawing you see Baltimore's Freddie Gray grimacing in pain

"Freddie Gray" (1 of 3), 2015. Charcoal on paper, each 8 ½ x 11 in. [Collection of the University of New Hampshire]

“It’s as if you're literally sitting in mourning as you look at these images,” said Dr. Kalima Young, a media impact scholar at Baltimore’s Townsend University. Young was scheduled to do a gallery talk during the exhibition’s six-week run in her city, before COVID-19 safety precautions shut the gallery down.

The show was then booked to come to moCa, but later canceled -- a decision that museum director Jill Snyder said she regrets. The artist responded with a public letter charging censorship. The museum issued a public apology to Leonardo, but as of right now, “The Breath of Empty Space,” is not coming to Cleveland.

“What he does is he creates opportunities in every single piece for us to sit and acknowledge and see ourselves within the image,” said Kalima Young. “So, there's a lot of use of mirrors and there's a lot of use of reinscribing the elements of the story that are lost, providing context for the death of these people.”

Kalima Young [Museo Soumaya]

She added that Leonardo is trying to present the person who may get lost in the cacophony of media pictures and videos that confront us every day.

“And also some of the story that has gotten lost as well, in terms of how a person came from point A to point B,” she said. “While also creating opportunities to sit and witness, and to sit in the pain quietly.”

"Michael Brown" (drawings 1-6) - charcoal on paper, each 8 1/2 x 11 in., 2015. [Collection of John Hatfield and Amy Wolf]

While the exhibition largely focuses on events from the past 30 years, there’s no denying that Leonardo’s drawings speak to America’s current moment.

“The fact that he can create an exhibition like this, when suddenly George Floyd has died, just adds to our understanding that these moments of cultural trauma have been going on for hundreds of years,” Young said. “It doesn't stop.”

But, for all the painful imagery, she said she is not aware of any backlash or criticism of the exhibition during its Baltimore run.

“And I think it's because we've been, we've been wrestling with the tough stuff of trauma for a very, very long time,” she said. “I think also, because the exhibition was at the Maryland Institute College of Art, it's an art school. So you have more people that are willing to go into these spaces and understand that they might receive or see something that is going to be very provocative.”

For Kalima Young, the lingering impact of “The Breath of Empty Space” was the way it allowed visitors to tone down the cacophony of media noise. You could just sit and reflect on these images that are so familiar and yet we don’t take the time to understand.

”We have the spectacular moment of violence. We get it. We see it. And then we're off to a new thing,” she said. “We have a project that we have to write or a report that needs to be given to our boss.”

She added that it’s important to allow ourselves to sit in pain and process it.

“And that's why I feel sad that people do not get a chance to see this exhibition,” she said. “Because, what Shaun Leonardo is actually doing is he's providing an opportunity for people to think in moments of cultural trauma and rewrite what it means and add context to these moments that have been just shoved down our throats without giving us the chance to breathe.”


David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.