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I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world, the title of FORUM Artspace’s December 2015 exhibition showcasing works on paper by Darius Steward and Clotilde Jiménez, is a quote drawn from American writer and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (2015). Coates’s book, authored as an open letter to his teenage son, is an entreaty to wake up, be conscious, and open our eyes to the reality of the world around us.
FORUM Artspace’s exhibition similarly calls upon us to do just that. Neither a lecture nor a rebuke, it is an honest examination of navigating black identity by two Cleveland-based artists. Steward’s and Jiménez’s works on paper alternate on the gallery walls; while they have a common subject, they adopt different tones and techniques. Looking around, I was arrested. Shot in the face. My gut wrenched at Steward’s watercolors—delicate, overlapping pools—even as Jiménez’s bright, infectious, doodling collages resonated with a childlike spirit within me. The terrible and the beautiful indeed, peaceably cohabitating.
There is a sole corner to round in the gallery, a nook created by a short dividing wall that greets visitors with Coates’s words. Taking that turn to the left, I stopped and stared. A black man, his face screwed up into a grimace and chin pointed high, held a gun in each hand and pointed both weapons at either side of his head. Steward’s frankly titled Our Current State #1 was calmly flanked by two of Jiménez’s collages by: the sauntering N.W.A. (Niggaz Wit Attitude) and the self-contained Happy Boy, legs crossed and seated on a red couch. Both appeared to observe the figure Steward portrayed, locked in as spectators to this alarming scene. There is an inherent tension between Steward’s selected medium and his subject. Even as the subject disturbed, I could not look away from his exquisite hues and brushstrokes.
Moving in closer (to do what, exactly? to help? to stare? The pull was unavoidable, magnetic), I found myself in the crosshairs of another work from Steward’s The Blind Shooter Series, for which the artist acted as the model. From my right, another man wielded a gun pointed directly at me. His right hand completely covered his face. In a way, I became the faceless one, targeted without discretion by my sightless assassin. By titling the works in this series Our Current State, Steward implicated each of us in the circumstance of these affairs—the black men with firearms, yes, but also the unseen factors and those who look on, immobile and silent. The shooter’s self-inflicted blindness suggests, perhaps, that our subject is neither entirely at ease with his own actions nor with that which surrounds him.
In contrast to Steward’s watercolors, which explore a collective experience, Jiménez’s collages are deeply personal. His technicolor tapestries of magazine cut-outs, paper towels, pastel, and acrylic can be read as self-portraits: reflections of past, present, and hoped-for selves. In them, Jiménez’s negotiation of his own identity is apparent. He appears as a saint, replete with pink fingernails and a gilded halo, as a boxer clad in high heels but still standing, and with a dirty martini on a phallic throne. This experience too is indicative of our current state in which gender, race, and sexual orientation continue to be debated, scrutinized, and judged.
I am a white female. To say that I can personally relate with Coates, Steward, and Jiménez—or Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice—would be a lie. I can, however, make the choice to not only empathize, but also, most importantly, to be aware. And so can you.
Laura Ziewitz is Assistant Registrar for Special Exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art. She earned her MA in Art History and Museum Studies at Case Western Reserve University. View more articles by Laura Ziewitz.