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A Gallery’s Safe Harbor From Anti

Jun 14, 2024Jun 14, 2024

CLEVELAND HEIGHTS, Ohio — Figures on the move against a dark, yet starry, night sky in Antwoine Washington’s painting “Parade for Harriet” (2022) have got me thinking about how home is complex, unstable, and political. Featured in Come Home with Me: A Solo Exhibition by Antwoine Washington at Gallery 2602, a new alternative art space in Cleveland Heights, “Parade for Harriet” — with its sharp contrasts of dark and light — seems to point to the wide-ranging effects and long durée of enslavement. The work’s title, as well as its female figure astride a panther, with a pistol tucked at her waist, and the accompanying group of people walking alongside her, conjure memories of the fierce abolitionist Harriet Tubman. For me, their contemporary attire communicates that the quest for freedom is an ongoing, perilous journey. Viewing the painting’s wispy clouds and spheres of golden light during the exhibition’s opening weekend, just as the Canadian wildfire smoke had left this region, reminded me of the various relentless effects of racial capitalism and settler colonialism. In visiting Come Home with Me, I witnessed Black epistemologies/knowledge systems that demonstrate ways for living despite constant threats of displacement and precarity.

Gallery founders Deidre McPherson and Thea Spittle, who co-curated the show with the artist, tapped into their professional museum backgrounds for the hybrid space while also realizing their goal of making art more accessible. They have made their home into a gallery. Washington, who has exhibited paintings and mixed media work in various institutional art spaces and has painted public murals throughout Cleveland, shares the gallerists’ innovative spirit. He co-founded the Museum of Creative Human Art, a peripatetic initiative that displays art in locations such as community art centers, small businesses, and museums throughout the city and offers art instruction to youth. With this in mind, the three took a mixed approach to their joint venture. Upon entering Gallery 2602, guests are greeted by an introductory wall text. But taking a few more steps inside, the furnishings and cat, Meeko, make it clear that Come Home with Me is actually a home — a familiar, life-affirming experience. The home, despite the heavily promoted idea that art primarily occurs in white cube spaces, is for many people the first site of aesthetic learning, practice, and appreciation, where children draw, play, cook, sing, and engage in other inventive activities.

As I moved through the rooms, I sensed synergy. In Come Home with Me, a true collaboration from the start, Washington, McPherson, and Spittle have combined their commitments to nurturing art, community, and anti-racist practices. With the gallery and exhibition, they’re actualizing the desire many of us have to share art with one another in a place where we can breathe fully, and work with dignity, rather than being compelled by institutional forces to tolerate anti-Blackness as a requirement for inclusion.

Immediately, the exhibition’s unity of representation, practice, and setting reminded me of Black feminist scholar bell hooks’s discussion of Black families’ vernacular curatorial practices. In Art on My Mind: Visual Politics (1995), she notes that “[t]he walls of images in Southern black homes were sites of resistance. They constituted private, black-owned and -operated gallery space where images could be displayed, shown to friends and strangers.” Similarly, on the walls of Gallery 2602 Washington expresses Black freedom struggles through ancestral memory. In addition to the main figures, traces of his lineage appear in some paintings as apparition-like gold-leaf silhouettes — a type of conceptual pentimenti. In both an amicable and critical manner, the exhibition counters the myth of Black families as dysfunctional that corporatized news regularly propagates. Works such as “472 Valencia” (2022) and “A Burning Love” (2022) present resonant images of relatives comforting one another, gathering, and reflecting on their connections.

Come Home with Me also depicts especially pensive moments. For instance, alluding to Sam Greenlee’s 1960s novel The Spook Who Sat by the Door — about a Black CIA agent who shifted allegiances by leaving the government to train Black insurgents in warfare techniques — the somber tonality of Washington’s painting “The Spook” (2023) demands meticulous attention. Exhibited near a window, the painting’s portrayal of an open door and pillar behind the backlit figure reverberates with Gallery 2602’s domestic setting. To me, this uncanny effect injects an undeniable sense of anxiety into the exhibition as navigating unequal access to power remains a persistent feature for Black communities.

In his self-portrait, “The War Within” (2023), Washington seems to indicate that knowing and honoring both the past and present involves difficult devotion. At the composition’s center, the artist portrays himself at different life stages surrounded by positive and negative spirits. Being at home and finding solace within the self involves courage, arduous exploration, and inspiration. Reminiscent in some ways to “Parade for Harriet,” this composite image, with its dark yet shimmering clouds, lures viewers into a haunting, internalized, memory-laden odyssey.

Through highlighting relationships between the personal and collective, Come Home with Me underscores interdependence. Backed by the Satellite Fund, administered by SPACES, and funded by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts Regional Regranting Program; FutureHeights Mini-Grant Program; and donations from friends and family, the exhibition also encouraged me to consider institutional homes for art. It demonstrates that patrons can find ways to support arts and culture initiatives grounded in caring about Black people. The art world’s prevalent rationalization is that we must wait on hegemonic institutions to correct themselves even though they have longstanding histories and ongoing practices of both excluding and harming Black and other marginalized people. In contrast, Come Home with Me and like-minded counter-hegemonic projects show that other trajectories for making and funding aesthetic experiences exist — and will proliferate if funding is provided for these paths. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. noted long ago, “we can’t wait.”

Come Home with Me is an invitation to recuperate with others who understand the importance of having safe harbors from the intensifying assaults of anti-Blackness that we find through state-sanctioned murders of Black people, laws prohibiting the teaching of our histories, decimation of reproductive rights, environmental destruction, and other brutal acts. In manifesting connections, this exhibition acknowledges and elaborates on traditions that have sustained Black life amid the catastrophe of racial capitalism and its escalating devastations. This refuge provides us moments to recollect ourselves and breathe together.

Come Home with Me: A Solo Exhibition by Antwoine Washington continues at Gallery 2602 (2602 Hampshire Road, Cleveland Heights, Ohio) through July 30. The exhibition was curated by Deidre McPherson, Thea Spittle, and Antwoine Washington.

Cultural organizer La Tanya S. Autry exercises her liberatory curatorial praxis through developing exhibitions and programming in institutional spaces and various non-institutional collaborative freedom... More by La Tanya S. Autry