By Michael C. Butz
Ali Black • Lives & Creates Shaker Heights • Degrees BA in English and Literature, BA in Communication and MA in English Language and Literature, all from The University of Toledo
Donald Black Jr. • Lives & Creates Shaker Heights • Degree BS in commercial photography from Ohio University
Gabriel Gonzalez • Lives & Creates Cleveland’s Clark-Fulton neighborhood
Many in Northeast Ohio likely got their first taste of acerbic at moCa Cleveland’s summer 2017 group exhibition, “Constant as the Sun,” where visitors were absorbed in the trio’s installation exploring life in Cleveland’s so-called Forgotten Triangle, a long-neglected swath of Kinsman.
Donald Black Jr. and Gabriel Gonzalez’s wall-sized photographs enveloped viewers, placing them shoulder to shoulder with neighborhood regulars in Mt. Pleasant and Clark-Fulton, their respective home neighborhoods. And Ali Black’s poetry – displayed on suspended Plexiglas in front of the photos – vividly and earnestly shared accounts from the streets.
Their installation was a highlight of the exhibition, and the three artists, all now 38 years old, consider it a recent highlight of their seven-year partnership. But they aren’t actively pursuing opportunities like that, as other artists might. They’re thinking bigger.
They want nothing less than to shift the power dynamic of Cleveland’s art world.
Sense of place
All three artists say they’ve often been the only person of color involved in a show or in attendance at a gallery. Black Jr. likens the experience to being in a fish bowl. He questions where – or if – he fits in, and wonders whether he wants to.
“I think I was developed in the Cleveland art world as a kid, (but I’m) realizing there isn’t a place for me as an adult in Cleveland’s art world,” he says. “So, I don’t know how much I really want to be a part of it, but I’m already a part of it.”
Black says she feels ogled when she’s the only black female (or one of very few) at an arts event. She penned essays in response asking, “Why is the art world so white?”
When conversations of inclusion and exclusion are discussed in terms of only black and white, Gonzalez is quick to remind his acerbic collaborators he’s often the only Puerto Rican in the room or on the walls.
“When we go to art shows, I’m not seeing myself,” he says. “And artistically, I don’t see many people documenting Puerto Rican culture – or depicting that there’s a Hispanic culture in this city.”
The trio’s response has been multifaceted. For starters, they’ve opened their own space in Mt. Pleasant, called Balance Point, where they’ve held small workshops and worked with children from the neighborhood.
“We want to be over here where people are. We want foot traffic. We want young people – we all teach,” Black Jr. says. “(In) a lot of what we’re doing, we interact with young people on a regular basis.”
Secondly, they were involved in “Just Like Riding A Bike: Photography Exhibition,” which opened Nov. 1 in a pop-up gallery at ThirdSpace CLE in Glenville, a space recently vacated by FRONT International. The opening reception was attended by scores of young people, predominantly African-American, some of whom rode their bikes in an indoor open space. The atmosphere was fun and relaxed – precisely the opposite of what the artists typically experience at openings.
“It was so home-like. It felt so good,” Black says. “You didn’t feel like an outsider, you didn’t feel out of place. It was a good time, and it was a beautiful thing to see. … There was powerful work on the walls – meaningful work on the walls – and young people were having a good time.”
In the same way they want their actions to shift dynamics, they want their art to resonate.
Gonzalez wants to turn his lens further toward documenting and showcasing Puerto Rican culture. Ultimately, he hopes his imagery will be used for murals in the West Side’s Hispanic communities the way Black Jr.’s imagery is used on the East Side.
“I think that’s one thing that’s missing,” he says. “I grew up in this neighborhood – why don’t I see me? Why don’t I see us? … I go (to Ohio City) and there are all of these murals that have nothing to do culturally with the neighborhood – and they’re painted by white people. What can they tell me about my neighborhood?”
Black Jr. admits to not caring whether viewers take away any insights from his work but says he hopes acerbic’s imagery – visual or word-based – gets seared into their memories.
Black, on the other hand, hopes her audience – “black people, poor people” – takes some reassurances from her writing.
“I always want them to feel a sense of relief that there’s someone out there documenting their experience,” she says. “I always want my audience to feel satisfied and relieved they’re being captured and remembered and talked about.” CV
Lead image: acerbic is Gabriel Gonzalez, Ali Black and Donald Black Jr. Photo by Michael C. Butz.