Tamir Rice legacy shows how artists can sensitively engage with racially charged history Favorite 



Nov 24 2019



CLEVELAND, Ohio – Dana Schutz, the acclaimed New York artist who trained at the Cleveland Institute of Art, famously stirred controversy at the 2017 Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art with “Open Casket,’’ her painting depicting Emmett Till’s body in its coffin.

Till, a black 14-year-old, was murdered and mutilated by white men in Mississippi in 1955 after having been falsely accused of flirting with a white woman.

The furor over Schutz’s painting raised the question of when it’s ethically appropriate to use such a racially charged tragedy as material for art.

An answer to that question emerged Wednesday at the Cleveland Museum of Art, where artists, performers and activists from across the U.S. convened to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the fatal police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.

Rice was playing with a pellet gun outside the Cudell Recreation Center when he was shot by rookie Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann.

The event at the museum underscored how Rice’s death has become a national symbol of outrage over excessive force used by police against blacks. As such, it’s beginning to engender an artistic legacy that provides a response to the questions raised by the controversy over Schutz’s painting.

As the works shared and performed at the event suggested, it can be fitting and proper to make art in such circumstances when surviving family members are directly involved, or give permission, instead of serving simply as subject matter for interpretation by an artist, no matter how well intentioned.

During the evening, for example, Cleveland dancer and choreographer Alexandria “Lexy” Lattimore performed a work entitled “Leave the Casket Open.’’

It was a reference to words uttered by Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, who wanted the world to see what her son’s killers had done to him.

Lattimore’s performance, obviously approved as part of the evening, made an explicit connection between Till and Tamir Rice, emphasizing the historical magnitude of the latter’s death.

The Wednesday gathering, entitled “Art, Activism & the Legacy of Tamir Rice,” was organized by Cleveland artist Amanda King with Samaria Rice, Tamir’s mother, not only as a memorial tribute, but as a way for Rice to raise money for her proposed Tamir Rice Afrocentric Cultural Center.

Rice used $160,000 from the $6 million paid to her by the city of Cleveland to settle a lawsuit over her son’s killing to buy a 2,340-square-foot, two-story brick commercial building at 6117 St. Clair Ave. as the future home of the new center.

Rice said she also put more than $200,000 into a foundation she established to support projects in her son’s memory.

Cleveland architect Sandra Madison unveiled plans for the renovation at the event.

In an interview before the evening, Rice said she hopes to have the center open by 2020 or 2021.

“I’m doing this for my son and for the community,’’ she said. “This is Tamir’s way of giving back to the community.”

King announced at the close of the event that $50,000 had been pledged to support the project. As of Thursday, an IOBY online campaign totaled another $19,500.

During the event, nationally and internationally known artists, writers, performers and filmmakers described how they had become involved with Rice, who has turned to art and culture as a way to keep her son’s memory alive, to channel her grief into her project to help Cleveland children, and to push for change.

The artists in effect were acting as godparents to Rice’s project, and as creators of projects conceived in collaboration with her, or with her approval.

Atlanta-based photographer Sheila Pree Bright showed slides of photographs including a stunning portrait of Samaria Rice.

Chicago artist Michael Rakowitz described the process that led to “A Color Removed,” a centerpiece installation during the 2018 Front International Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art.

Rakowitz wanted to collect and display safety orange objects highlighting the absence of the orange tip from Tamir Rice’s toy gun as a contributing factor in his death. During the development of the piece, he realized he had to reach out to Samaria Rice.

Los Angeles artist E.J. Hill said he came to a similar awareness while developing an installation in Tamir Rice’s memory during a residency at Harvard University.

“I realized I couldn’t continue if I didn’t try at least to get in touch with Ms. Rice and ask for her blessing to use Tamir’s name,’’ he said.

Eventually, Rice and King traveled to Harvard, where Rice collaborated on Hill’s installation, which evoked a fictional “University of St. Tamir,’’ and the lessons it might teach.

The installation includes an inscription addressed by Rice to her dead son in which she says: “It is on honor to work with artists and activists all over the world to tell your story. I am humbled to share in E.J. Hill’s vision for the University of St. Tamir, a space to remember you and what state-sanctioned violence did to our family and many other black and brown communities across the nation. The struggle against police terror continues.”

Samaria Rice came across throughout the evening at the museum not as a passive subject, but as someone discovering her voice and working in common cause with creative thinkers whom she has encountered by virtue of the tragedy that changed her life.

“I am a woman I’m a mother and I am an activist for change,” she said when she took the podium. “I was thrust into this life and it was not the life that I chose. This is Gods’ plan and I allow God to guide me through this process.’’

The process to which she referred included seeking help from the globally renowned Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates, whom she called for help in dismantling and preserving the wood gazebo at Cudell, in front of which Tamir was playing when he was shot.

Rice was under pressure at the time from the city of Cleveland, which wanted the gazebo removed, but which offered it to her. Rice and Chicago lawyer Billy Joe Mills sought locations in Cleveland, Chicago and Washington, D.C., but were unable to get a commitment that would meet the tight timetable, Mills said.

Gates, whose work focuses on sculpture, performance and redevelopment of sites on the South Side of Chicago, showed slides depicting how he brought a crew of laborers to Cleveland to disassemble the gazebo.

After storing it for two years, Gates reconstructed the gazebo last summer on the lawn of his Stony Island Arts Bank on the South Side of Chicago, where it is acquiring status as an icon.

At a private fundraising luncheon before the evening at the museum, Gates announced he was contributing $25,000 to have the gazebo rebuilt in Cleveland, if a proper site could be found. (A spokesperson for the artist later said he would channel his donation to the Tamir Rice Foundation, to support its efforts in general).

At the museum, Gates said he wasn’t trying to make an artwork out of the gazebo, but that even though he didn’t know Samaria Rice before taking her call, he felt as compelled to help her as if she were a cousin of his.

And he said it is an artist’s duty to give voice to the pain of others when they seek help.

“We have the truths of our lives,’’ he said, “and then there are people who can give shape and form and amplification and platform to the truths of our lives.”

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