Shaun Leonardo’s previously canceled exhibition will go on view at Mass MOCA and the Bronx Museum.
Shaun Leonardo, Trayvon, 2014–17. Courtesy of the artist.
Two museums have announced they will present Shaun Leonardo’s exhibition, “The Breath of Empty Space,” following its cancellation by Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland (MoCA) in March. The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MOCA) in North Adams will host the exhibition of Leonardo’s drawings, which honor victims of police violence, from August 26th through December 22nd of this year. The Bronx Museum of the Arts will open its presentation of the show on January 20, 2021.
MoCA Cleveland cancelled Leonardo’s exhibition after allegedly receiving pushback from local activists and museum staff that the work in the show might be glorifying Black pain and trauma. Leonardo, known for his politically-engaged work and centering of community dialogue, said in an email to his followers on June 6th that MoCA Cleveland’s “institutional white fragility led to an act of censorship.” Jill Snyder, the museum’s executive director, issued a public apology to Leonardo in June, stating in the letter that “we failed the artist, we breached his trust, and we failed ourselves.” Snyder eventually resigned after 23 years in her role.
Leonardo, who has a longstanding relationship with both Mass MOCA and the Bronx Museum, said the museums reached out to him about presenting his work in the midst of the controversy. He began working on the drawings in the exhibition in 2014, beginning with a depiction of the partially-obscured face of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old Black boy who was fatally shot in 2012 by a civilian “neighborhood watch” patroller.
Leonardo said in a press release:
For these drawings, I take some of the most widely disseminated images of police violence, both recent and historical, and make choices that I think will slow down our looking. I wish to literally create space in these images, so that we can sit with them differently, even in the hurt. I am intentionally removing or isolating details in order to point to the absence of lives lost and to critical information that would otherwise go overlooked.
Despite being initiated some six years ago, the works in “The Breath of Empty Space” are especially relevant right now, as police violence—and protests against it—continues to swell.