‘Imagine Otherwise’ Shifts the Paradigm of Black Representation

In the majority-Black city of Cleveland, La Tanya S. Autry’s ambitious project holds space for unbound expression of Black life by rerouting visitors from moCa to the city’s Black-led cultural centres

BY Meghana Karnik AND Claire Voon in Opinion , US Reviews | 04 JUN 21

High above the sun-filled atrium of the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland (moCa), a phantom ship floats over still water, its sails illuminated by blue light and frenetic images: two men wrestling on the beach in a tangling embrace; a boy dancing ecstatically in a majorette uniform; Renty Taylor, an enslaved man, gazing from a daguerreotype. Animating the eddy is the sound of crashing waves and a recitation of Jaylen Strong’s poem ‘Memory’s Blood’ (2021).

The work is still waters run deep (2021), an installation by Pittsburgh-based artist Shikeith that, in both inhabiting and disrupting history, feels unmoored from time. The piece is the cynosure of moCa’s Imagine Otherwise’, a multisite group exhibition curated by La Tanya S. Autry, which holds space for unbounded expressions of Black life. But moCa is the exhibition's point of genesis and departure: Autry had envisioned the show prior to her two-year Gund Foundation Curatorial Fellowship at moCa but expanded its footprint after whistle-blowing institutional racism as the museum’s first on-staff Black curator.

Amber N. Ford, Strands, Tracks & Naps (detail), 2021. Site-specific installation commissioned by moCa Cleveland as part of Imagine Otherwise. Photo: Field Studio.
Amber N. Ford, Strands, Tracks & Naps (detail), 202, site-specific installation commissioned by moCa Cleveland as part of Imagine Otherwise. Courtesy: the artist and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland; photography: Field Studio

Taking as its lodestar Christina Sharpe’s groundbreaking book, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (2016), ‘Imagine Otherwise’ hinges on accepting anti-Blackness as a total climate. (Its didactics name moCa as anti-black.) Autry clearly intends to normalize acknowledging racial dynamics, particularly in contexts averse to this discussion. While the show connects with Afro-Pessimism and Afrofuturism, Autry’s prelude on anti-Blackness segues into the spiritual reimagining of self and community with which the show’s artists engage every day. ‘Imagine Otherwise’ aligns closely to Sharpe’s concept of operating ‘in the wake’ – the ontological condition of Blackness informed by what Saidiya Hartman first described in Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (2006) as the ‘afterlife of slavery’. Autry enacts Sharpe’s ‘wake work’ – a praxis beyond representational strategies and the polarities of Black joy or pain.

Last spring, Autry watched closely while the institution wrestled with cancelling Shaun Leonardo’s exhibition, ‘The Breath of Empty Space’, which responded to police murders of Black people. In a 2020 interview with Hyperallergic, the curator said that moCa’s leadership failed to provide the ‘scaffolding of care’ necessary for the communities, staff and artists it serves. This outspokenness, Autry believes, is what led to ‘Imagine Otherwise’ being ‘quietly cancelled’ in retaliation, although a spokesperson for the museum told frieze that ‘Imagine Otherwise’ was postponed due to ‘COVID-19 related cost pressures’, adding that ‘moCa staff leadership advocated for [its reinstatement], and the board supported it’.

These events made Autry reflect on her complicity. As she told frieze: ‘Someone in Cleveland said to me, “It isn’t fair what moCa is doing, but why do we keep giving those places our best work?” And I sat with that question because I wanted to have my show in this white museum. I wanted the big space. What does that mean about my work? Who I am?’ Resolving then to redistribute resources, Autry used funding from moCa to develop partnerships with two local Black-run spaces, the Museum of Creative Human Art (MOCHA) and ThirdSpace, located in the eastside neighbourhoods of Glenville and Buckeye-Shaker.

Imani Dennison, NO MAS – Irreversible Entanglements (still), 2020. Site-specific installation organized by moCa Cleveland as part of Imagine Otherwise. Photo: Field Studio.
Imani Dennison, No Más – Irreversible Entanglements (still), 2020. Site-specific installation organized bymoCa Cleveland as part of Imagine Otherwise. Courtesy: the artist and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland; photography: Field Studio

ThirdSpace, a grassroots racial equity and inclusion consultancy (REI), hosts works by Cleveland artist Amber N. Ford and Brooklyn-based Imani Dennison. Notably, the mid-century building was designed by Robert Madison, Ohio’s first registered Black architect; its first tenants were Black doctors, some of whom were paediatricians to Glenville’s present-day elders. While ThirdSpace does not consider itself a gallery, co-founders Evelyn Burnett and Mordecai Cargill told frieze they are open to hosting any programmes that are ‘collaborative, about racial equity and inclusion’.

Ford’s installation, Strands, Tracks & Naps (2021), presents the artist’s portraits and cyanotype studies of Black hair and accessories against a wallpaper close-up of the passion twist hairstyle, transforming the intimate rituals of self-styling into a geography of care. Donning braids, bantu knots or floral durags, the artist’s sitters are close friends who radiate quiet pride and integrity.

Dennison’s film, No Más (2020), features the music of free jazz ensemble Irreversible Entanglements, who commissioned the artist to create a video that imagines African diasporas journeying to their own planet. Between moments of tenderness and toughness are glimpses of urban cowboys, astronauts, preteen boxers in Johannesburg and protests against police brutality. The cosmic travelogue is punctuated with the meditative lyrics ‘no más, no more’, underscoring a transgressive escape from existing paradigms.

This intention aligns closely with that of MOCHA co-founders Antwoine Washington and Michael C. Russell, two Cleveland-based artists who campaigned for five years to establish an arts education nonprofit for Black and Brown youth. Having only recently attained funding, MOCHA still needs to find a permanent home, so for ‘Imagine Otherwise’ it initially occupied an apartment above beloved hipster bar Mahall’s, in the majority-white suburb of Lakewood. It was an apt location for Washington’s theatrical installation, And Yeah, About That Seat at the Table (2021), which navigates the artist’s life story, ancestral memories and US history. Laden with symbols, his assemblages verge on the literal – an American flag, a noose, cotton balls, dollar bills, a book on US democracy – summarizing frustration toward empty promises of housing, generational wealth and equal justice under law. In the intimate architecture of domestic space, Washington conjures Hartman’s analysis of ‘the brutal asymmetry of power’ behind American hubris, revealing the myth of progress in the wake of slavery.

Antwoine Washington, And Yeah, About that Seat at the Table, 2021. Site-specific installation commissioned by moCa Cleveland as part of Imagine Otherwise. Photo: Field Studio.
Antwoine Washington, And Yeah, About that Seat at the Table, 2021. Site-specific installation

commissioned by moCa Cleveland as part of Imagine Otherwise. Courtesy: the artist and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland; photography: Field Studio

This May, a film crew staying in the adjoining apartment vandalized Washington’s work. In an Instagram post, Mahall’s owners stated they were holding themselves accountable but, for Washington and Autry, the event only served to prove the assertions of ‘Imagine Otherwise’. Washington’s work now finds refuge in Larchmere Arts, a storefront performance venue in Buckeye-Shaker. The display is inviting but, due its displacement and rapid reinstall, feels the least finessed of the three presentations. On one wall hangs the oil on canvas Pillars (2021), in which Washington depicts himself alongside his MOCHA co-founder Russell. The men appear preternaturally at ease. The artist told frieze that the portrait is about ‘trying to find freedom in what we’re trying to do and where we fit in, as Black men, trying to build something for our community’. The pair’s deliberately serene demeanour speaks to the fact that Black men have been, according to Washington, ‘conditioned to come up against each other’ rather than unite.

In a city of predominantly white institutions, best characterized by their tendency to misunderstand and neglect racialized experiences, ‘Imagine Otherwise’ is remarkable for breaking from existing models and rerouting visitors to the thought leadership of Black-led cultural centres. Yet, the exhibition raises complicated questions for both curator and audience: is it significant that a visiting curator led this community-organizing, which includes non-Cleveland artists? Do the locations – a museum, a headquarters for REI training, a storefront – create an implicit hierarchy? Can arts workers liberate from institutions while in proximity to them? Why wasn’t there widespread local outrage about moCa’s institutional failures? In Cleveland’s siloed and segregated arts community, will the show’s nuanced thesis motivate collective action for change?

Autry admits that, in retrospect, she would have made different choices, perhaps hosting in non-traditional community spaces alone. She intends to mount future iterations of ‘Imagine Otherwise’, in part to inspire activism in arts workers who fear professional repercussions for institutional critique. ‘I think we did something good,’ she told frieze. ‘It’s a gift, I hope, to Cleveland’s art ecosystem and to the field at large. I hope it leads to something, but I see it as a link, just one link in a chain.’

'Imagine Otherwise' is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland, through 5 June 2021.

This article was made possible, in part, by Claire Voon’s art writer's residency at SPACES in Cleveland, USA.

Main Image: Shikeith, still waters run deep / fall in your ways, 2021. Site-specific installation commissioned by moCa Cleveland as part of 'Imagine Otherwise'. Courtesy: the artist and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland; photography: Field Studio

Meghana Karnik is a New York-based curator originally from Cleveland, USA. She has organized exhibitions and programmes with global arts institutions, including the forthcoming FRONT International 2022 (Cleveland), EFA Project Space (New York, USA), Cleveland Institute of Art, Critical Practices, Inc., Penthouse Art Residency / Harlan Levey Projects (Brussels, Belgium), Foundation and Center for Contemporary Arts (Prague, Czech Republic), and Zygote Press (Cleveland).

Claire Voon is a freelance writer and editor based in Chicago. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, ARTnews, Artsy, The Brooklyn Rail, and Cultured, among other publications.