I Can't Breathe

I Can't Breathe,
a Workshop and Performance by Shaun Leonardo

Wednesday, October 7, 2015
6 to 8pm

Shaun Leonardo,  Self-portrait (Arena 3) , 2014

Shaun Leonardo, Self-portrait (Arena 3), 2014

On October 7, 2015, The Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation hosted Shaun Leonardo's I Can't Breathe. a public-participatory workshop and performance that takes the form of a self-defense class. Over the course of a half hour, participants learn a range of self-defense techniques - from purely pacifist, self-protective maneuvers (including how one may relieve the pressure of a chokehold) to more overt, defensive strategies (participants do not learn offensive strikes or moves). Participants are then placed and paired off in a staggered arrangement. With certain cues given by the artist, each pair enacted the self-defense techniques just learned, alternating in the role of the aggressor. As the artist recited a script inspired by Nina Simone, each pair elected which action to take solely based on how he or she internalizes the words' meaning. The overall, impromptu composition of defensive actions thus creates a reflection and meditation on our community's legacy of self-preservation, and continued desire/need/fight to protect and survive. The piece is conducted in memory of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Akai Gurley, Ramarley Graham, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin... and countless others.

This public participatory performance was followed by a conversation between the artist and Dr. Isaiah B. Pickens, Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist and writer, on the subject of trauma - its impact on memory and one's ability to process suffering. The conversation was centered on police relations with communities of color -specifically how fear and remembrance of both physical and psychological pain affects the relationship between law enforcement and young people of color.

Please read a compelling review of the event by Joel Kuennen entitled I Tell You What Freedom Is to Me: No Fear on ArtSlant and watch a video of the workshop and performance here.

This work was made possible, in part, by the Franklin Furnace Fund supported by Jerome Foundation, The SHS Foundation, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and general operating support from the New York State Council on the Arts.


Shaun Leonardo is a multidisciplinary artist who uses modes of self-portraiture as a means to convey the complexities of masculine identity and question preconceived notions of manhood. The portraits take the form of cutout paintings, drawings, and sculptures, while also brought to life through performance. Leonardo is a Brooklyn-based artist from Queens, New York City. He received his MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and has received awards from Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, The New York Studio School, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Art Matters, New York Foundation for the Arts, McColl Center for Visual Art, Franklin Furnace, and The Jerome Foundation. His work has been presented in galleries and institutions, nationally and internationally, and was recently featured in the exhibitions Crossing Brooklyn at Brooklyn Museum and Radical Presence at Studio Museum in Harlem. For more information, please visit elcleonardo.com.

Dr. Isaiah Pickens is a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in consulting, counseling, and educational services for families, teens, and young adults. Dr. Pickens is currently faculty at New York University School of Medicine and Bellevue Hospital Center in the department of child and adolescent psychiatry, specializing in treatment of juvenile offenders who have a history of psychological trauma.  He is also adjunct faculty at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. His research has focused on the beliefs young people have about the world and how those beliefs lead to aggression or academic achievement. In addition to Dr. Pickens’ academic work, he enjoys merging his interest in youth and young adults with creative ideas for self-development.  In the summer of 2010, he founded iOpening Enterprises, a multi-media company that specializes in creating books, films, and life skills workshops for teens and the adults who care for them.  His first project from iOpening Enterprises was his debut book entitled The Dawn of Generation Why. This book is geared toward young adults and explores identity development in the context of globalization and the ubiquitous use of social media. Currently, iOpening Enterprises is in the process of filming It’s Complicated, a teen talk show focusing on mental health issues teens face.  Dr. Isaiah presently is a regular contributor to Psychology TodayHuffington Post, BlackDoctor.org, and has appeared numerous times on MSNBC to discuss the psychological implications of current events as it relates to trauma and other mental health issues.