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The Eulogy


An extension of The Breath of Empty Space, MASS MoCA shares a video and transcript of Leonardo’s performance The Eulogy.

The Eulogy (2015-2017) recreates a New Orleans Jazz funeral procession to hold space for bodies who no longer physically can. Towering above the audience, Leonardo recites a script that combines his own words, honoring the young Black men whose lives he reflects upon in The Breath of Empty Space, with excerpts from Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel, Invisible Man.

Invisible Man has served as a historical starting point for this exhibition and an on-going source of inspiration for Shaun Leonardo’s practice. The novel chronicles the travels of its narrator—a young, nameless Black man—as he struggles to psychologically and physically survive the force of structural racism in America. A pivotal point in the novel is the funeral of Brother Tod Clifton, a close friend of the narrator who was killed by a white police officer’s gunfire. Our narrator recites the funeral’s eulogy(1), marking a major transition in his character and psyche.

Channeled through Leonardo’s oration, the narrator’s speech sways from passionate admiration to pitiful remembrance, all the while expressing a deep sentiment of regret. Ultimately, our narrator attempts to instill Brother Clifton’s memory in the minds of his public in the hopes of establishing his legacy, but does so with a serious warning. He tells us of a black man “who exists outside of history”—a man who will be forgotten and dismissed, like the countless others, if the memory of him becomes buried as a statistic.

In Leonardo’s The Eulogy, in every instance Brother Tod Clifton is named in the speech, the artist has replaced it with the name of a young man of color who was killed by the police in contemporary America: all of whom the artist also honors in work on view in The Breath of Empty Space.

The combination of Ellison and Leonardo’s words create a duet between the artists and a choir of generations of Black lives lost to police violence in America, giving voice to the essence of powerlessness and vulnerability evoked by systemic oppression. Whether heard through Leonardo’s impassioned performance of The Eulogy or read here in their full transcript, these words serve as a memorial, a rejection, a challenge, and call to action, all at once.

Download a transcript of The Eulogy here.

Learn more about Shaun Leonardo’s exhibition The Breath of Empty Space here.