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Michael Rakowitz

CLEVELAND — Boxes of pizza and trays filled with steaming food lined wooden tables at the Spaces art gallery here. Visitors to a recent opening could help themselves, but if they chose corn on the cob or chicken nuggets, they had to reach over the sign that read: “Please enjoy this offering of Tamir Rice’s favorite foods, to make him present in a project that is about his death.”

The installation, by Michael Rakowitz, an Iraqi-American artist and professor based in Chicago, is titled “A Color Removed,” and it asks, Can you remove a color — and a symbol of safety — from an entire city? Mr. Rakowitz is trying to do just that, as a tribute to Tamir, the 12-year-old boy who was playing with a pellet gun when he was fatally shot in 2014 by a Cleveland police officer, Timothy Loehmann. The police chief, Calvin Williams, said that the pellet gun had been “indistinguishable from a real firearm” because it was lacking its orange safety cap. A grand jury did not indict Mr. Loehmann, who was fired last year for lying on his employment application.

“When that minor object got isolated, it was outrageous and infuriated me, but at the same time I thought, ‘That’s something to talk about, because we’re talking about color,’” said Mr. Rakowitz, whose art practice often involves trying to execute impossible-seeming actions, including reconstructing — from disposable materials — all the artifacts looted from the National Museum of Iraq.

“If we need an indirect way of talking about black and white, maybe we can talk about red and yellow,” he said of his Cleveland project. In other words, maybe metaphor can be a useful way of getting at the reality of race. As Mr. Rakowitz said, “We are living in spaces where color is removed every day with the shootings of young black men.”

The artist was also struck by a coincidence: in Arabic, the word “tamir” means “date,” a food found in abundance in his family’s home country and a frequent subject of his work. “That’s where you realize you’re living in a world where it really is all connected,” he says. He saw Tamir Rice’s death as both a local tragedy and something more universal: “the brutality of difference being marked on somebody’s body.”

Mr. Rakowitz proposed “A Color Removed” in a lecture at Case Western Reserve University in April 2015 but the project went mostly dormant. Then, in 2017, when plans were being made for Front, a new art triennial in Cleveland, it was revived.

With the triennial proposing Cleveland as “An American City,” Christina Vassallo, the executive director of Spaces, an alternative art venue, offered Mr. Rakowitz’s show. “There is nothing more American than disintegrating community-police relations,” she said.

Last fall, Mr. Rakowitz held workshops here where attendees were prompted to think about racial justice and the right to safety: Who has it, and how is it represented? He began working with the graphic designer Amir Berbić to create collection bins that are now placed at institutions around the city. Branded in red and yellow, the bins invite viewers to donate orange objects, which make up the physical installation of “A Color Removed.” Orange clothing, construction equipment, toys and household items fill the gallery. Some objects are especially poignant, including a plastic figure of a child holding a sign that reads, “Caution: Children at Play,” and the life jacket of a Syrian refugee who never reached Europe.

But as the project expanded from a strictly conceptual one to a community-based one, some onlookers raised questions: Did people of color really need art to remind them they weren’t safe? Was it acceptable for an artist who isn’t black or from Cleveland to make work about Tamir Rice? Where was Tamir’s mother, Samaria Rice, in all this?

Those concerns came to a head in April, at a dinner where a number of black Cleveland artists spoke honestly and critically about the project. Mr. Rakowitz and Ms. Vassallo responded by inviting them in: Amanda King (along with the youth photographers in her art program, Shooting Without Bullets), M. Carmen Lane, RA Washington, and Amber N. Ford made their own work about racial violence for the show. Their contributions are a more explicitly personal counterpoint to the collection of orange objects, since all were living in Cleveland when Tamir was shot.

“I watched a city fail her son and fail Ms. Rice under my roof,” said Mr. Washington, a writer and the founder of a bookstore called Guide to Kulchur, where community members gathered at the time to process Tamir’s death. “Participating in this felt like a nod to that.”

Over the years, members of the “Color Removed” team said they had tried to reach Tamir’s mother through various intermediaries, without success. But after the dinner, Ms. King, who is an adviser to Ms. Rice, agreed to pass on a request: Could Mr. Rakowitz cook lunch for her? Ms. Rice agreed. She said that the artist “seemed sincere” when she met him, although she was upset that she hadn’t been involved from the beginning.

Ms. Rice ultimately agreed to allow the use of Tamir’s name in “A Color Removed,” and she became an artistic collaborator, making her own contribution with orange toys on poster board. It’s the focus of the installation, resting beneath a neon sign that blares “SAFE” and a framed photograph of her son. “I know the power of art,” Ms. Rice said in a speech at the opening, which felt both celebratory and solemn. “Tamir and his sister Tajai loved the arts. They participated in art classes at Cudell Recreation Center, where Tamir was murdered. Tamir loved to create, to express himself. The process brought him joy.”

In the gallery, pieces of orange paper explain that Ms. Rice is working to sustain her son’s legacy through the Tamir Rice Afrocentric Center, which will offer after school arts programs and mentoring for teenagers in Cleveland. Mr. Rakowitz plans to give elements of the installation — the orange objects and communal table — to Ms. Rice to use as she pleases, when the exhibition closes on Sept. 30.

“What does it mean if you move beyond good intentions?” he asked. “It means that we’re talking then about advocacy, about accountability.”

“I’m very skeptical of socially engaged art that ends with a happy ending, because we’re not living in that world,” he added. He said he hopes others will also follow through on commitments to help, rather than reverting to complacency — a sentiment that echoes Ms. Rice’s own.

People in Cleveland aren’t “making enough noise,” she said, “and I don’t really know why. So I guess I got to make it with the center, and they have to make it with their art.”

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