The Plain Dealer | Steven Litt  |  July 08, 2018

Spaces exhibit exploring issues raised by Tamir Rice shooting could be FRONT's emotional centerpiece

CLEVELAND, Ohio - The Arabic word associated with the kind of date that comes from a palm tree is tamir.

You learn this from Michael Rakowitz, a 44-year-old Chicago-based conceptual artist producing what may become the emotional centerpiece of the first FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art, which opens July 14 and runs through September 30 at venues across Northeast Ohio.

Entitled "A Color Removed," the Rakowitz project will be an installation accompanied by community dialogues at the nonprofit Spaces gallery, at 2900 Detroit Avenue in Cleveland's Ohio City neighborhood.

The project explores issues raised by the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, the African-American boy shot and killed by Cleveland police in November 2014 while playing in a park with a toy gun from which the orange safety tip had been removed.

FRONT is the biggest and most ambitious visual arts festival in Northeast Ohio history, with exhibits at 19 collaborating museums and institutions in Cleveland, Akron and Oberlin, plus outdoor installations and six free "City Stages" concerts.

It's impossible to say in advance which parts of FRONT will resonate the most with viewers, but the Spaces project, which has the blessing of the Rice family, promises to be one of the highlights.

It centers on Rakowitz's admittedly quixotic attempt in recent months to remove from Cleveland all things orange - a color that denotes safety - to underscore how the absence of an orange tip on a toy plastic gun was fatal to Tamir Rice.

The artist used a community letter-writing campaign and placed collection bins around the city to seek donations of orange colored objects including traffic cones, toys, safety vests, furniture, and art materials.

The collected items will be displayed in the gallery, effectively turning it into a safe zone for private, unrecorded community discussions on racism, the use of force by police and other topics related to the shooting of Tamir Rice. Details will be posted at

Local collaborators will lead some of the conversations; Rakowitz will lead others by making meals for attendees at a temporary kitchenette in the gallery, using recipes he learned from his Iraqi-Jewish forebears.

The prime ingredient will be dates.

Rakowitz said he wants to use the sweet, dark brown fruit to invoke Tamir Rice's memory in quasi-spiritual terms.

"Tamir becomes almost like this communion of the body, and also the color of the date, the color of the skin," he said.

The outcome of "A Color Removed" is hard to predict. It may come down to something as ineffable as a revelatory conversation that changes one participant's life, or which fires up advocates to work harder on improving police-community relations.

However it is judged, "A Color Removed" shows how parts of FRONT could be intimate and highly charged. Other parts of the sprawling exhibit could be equally provocative in different ways.

During FRONT, you can crane a neck at soaring murals painted on buildings in downtown Cleveland. You can tour museum galleries.

You can contemplate a giant silver-painted sculpture of a human hand placed on Toby's Plaza at Uptown in University Circle by Chicago artist Tony Tasset.

Or you can enter a hold in the William G. Mather Steamship at North Coast Harbor to see films by "The late Allan Sekula, whose work explored the impact of global capitalism on the sea.

FRONT will be pervasive enough in Cleveland to enable casual, drive-by or walk-in experiences. And it will be expansive enough throughout the region to keep art lovers busy for days or weeks.

You can dip in, or dig in.

FRONT was conceived by retired Akron advertising executive Fred Bidwell, now a cultural entrepreneur in Cleveland.

FRONT's Artistic Director, Michelle Grabner, a Milwaukee-based artist, educator and curator, formulated the inaugural edition of the festival in collaboration with curators at local museums and institutions, and with a group of curatorial correspondents from around the world.

Together, they organized FRONT as a compilation of "11 cultural exercises."

Translated, that means that the festival includes conventional museum exhibits, plus concerts and performances, film and video, a "Digital Infinity" display online, plus lectures and roundtables, special publications, and a show on art from around the Great Lakes at the Cleveland Institute of Art.

Details are listed at

"The Glenville Exchanges" one of the 11 exercises, involves public programs at the PNC Glenville Arts Campus in the largely African-American neighborhood just north of University Circle.

"Canvas City," another exercise, will reveal and beautify gaps in Cleveland's downtown fabric by covering blank facades with vast, colorful murals.

The "Artist Focus" piece of FRONT, which the organizers describe as the principal part of the festival, includes site-specific works by leading global artists installed in local landmarks.

Among them is a project on immigration at the Cleveland Public Library's main branch at 325 Superior Ave. by London-born Yinka Shonibare, who grew up in the U.K. and in Lagos, Nigeria.

He wrapped 6,000 books in colorful African wax cloth and stamped their spines with the names of U.S. immigrants who have contributed to art, science or culture.

At Playhouse Square, considered America's second biggest unified performing arts complex after Lincoln Center in New York, German artist Candice Breitz will display "Love Story," a video installation in which actors Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore channel the thoughts of refugees from global conflicts.

At the West Side Market and "City Stages" concerts, Milwaukee artist John Riepenhoff will sell curry sausages made in collaboration with Larder Delicatessen chef Jeremy Umansky.

They used spices from the 6-acre Ohio City Farm, where global refugees working associated with the nonprofit Refugee Response tend one of America's largest urban farms.

Wisconsin native Philip Vanderhyden, based in New York, is setting up a frenetically paced, 24-channel video installation in the lobby of Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland with digital animations exploring jittery effects of extreme volatility in global financial markets.

At Oberlin College, New York artist Barbara Bloom is reinterpreting the Allen Memorial Art Museum's collection by displaying artworks on architectural structures she has inserted in the museum's 1977 addition, a classic of postmodern architecture designed by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown.

The Akron Art Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland are turning over thousands of square feet of exhibit space to FRONT.

So is the Cleveland Museum of Art, which on Saturday started hosting the Yayoi Kusama "Infinity Mirrors," an unrelated but hugely popular traveling exhibition that will contribute to the summer's artistic offerings.

In Glenville, playwright Michael Oatman, of Euclid, is staging performances of "The Dutchman," a powerful 1964 Amiri Baraka play on race relations, at the FRONT Porch, a repurposed daycare center at 1470 East 105th St.

All of those exhibits and events - and much more, including the Rakowitz project at Spaces - could be considered essential viewing for anyone who wants to have a complete grasp of FRONT.

Rakowitz, who conceived of "A Color Removed" in 2015 before FRONT ramped up, is pleased that it has become part of the festival.

He said he understands that hosting discussions on racism and policing may attract a mainly liberal audience. But he's hoping for a diversity of viewpoints.

"I do believe that artworks can be transformative," he said. "I hope one day to make work like that, and I also think it's worthwhile to create a space for conversations that for some people don't exist yet."

The same could be said for FRONT as a whole. It aims to change as many minds as possible - locally and internationally - about Northeast Ohio as a place for contemporary art.

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