South Side Community Art Center's (SSCAC) newest exhibition explores the center's role in uplifting and supporting a community of queer Black creators through a collection of their art from the 1940s through the 1980s.
"Bringing black diasporic art into our understanding of art history is crucial to expand the complexities of our own narratives and histories," said exhibition co-curator LaMar R. Gayles, Jr. "This exhibition is a great way to strip out the Chicago piece of that story, but also how nationally it hits."
"EMERGENCE: Intersections at the Center"which is curated by Gayles and zakkiyyah najeebah dumas-o'neal, and which runs through Saturday, July 2showcases photos, paintings, posters, collages and other mixed-media formats created by artists within and connected to the LGBTQ+ community. Some of the artists featured in the exhibition include Ralph Arnold, Richmond Barthé, William S. Carter and Mikki Ferril, among others.
"Some of these artists are well known, and their work can occupy major galleries, but those galleries might not reference them as gay or Black," Gayles said. "Within this exhibition, it was crucial for us to acknowledge the artists' personalities, their perspectives, but also their connections to the communities that are the subject of the show."
SSAC was founded in 1940 and is the oldest African American art center in the United States. Its mission is to facilitate engagement and connection with African American art as well as nurture emerging creators, according to its website. Its latest exhibition explores the center's history of doing this work through a closer look at the lives and artworks of some of its founding members.
Through interviews with artists' close friends and family members, letters and journal entries, Gayles and dumas-o'neal contextualized the art by providing information about the creators' lives and exploring queer analysis of the pieces.
"Some artists have very specific subject matter in their work that's tied to queerness, like one artist was drawing trans figures in their work while other people were playing with gender norms and different facets of sexuality, addressing love as more than hetereonormative action," Gayles said.
Though many of the featured artists wouldn't have identified as LGBTQ+ in a time when it was more dangerous to be openly queer and language surrounding sexuality differed, the exhibit draws out themes of identity, belonging and intersectionality through a focus on the creators' artistic identities.
"At the time, many of the folks weren't openly queer, but people within a certain community knew them to be that way," dumas-o'neal said. "We really thought about the ways we honored their artistic practices and the ways their work informed other artists, and how that connected them to a queer community."
The exhibition also touches on some of the artistic community spaces the artists spent time in, including the vibrant queer nightlife that flourished in the Bronzeville area which dumas-o'neal and Gayles learned had a reputation for being inclusive.
These nightclubs and SSAC-organized social events were some of the few spaces that brought people with various backgrounds together despite segregation in the city, dumas-o'neal said.
"You had a multiplicity of people who were disabled, people who were on the spectrum of queerness occupying the same space," dumas-o'neal said. "It was also an intergenerational and interracial space. These culturally specific spaces where music or art was happening in some form, they tended to cross boundaries. The queer identity bridged different people together in spaces they wouldn't otherwise be in together."
In addition to getting to know the artists featured in the exhibit, dumas-o'neal said she hopes the collection changes visitors' perspectives about archives and inspires "a hunger" for more engagement with queer art and history at The South Side Community Art Center and beyond.
"I hope people take away a certain kind of reverence for the archive, in terms of knowing that archives are never stagnant, and depending on the context, the way an archive or an artist's work is interpreted can evolve," dumas-o'neal said.
For more information about SSAC, visit www.sscartcenter.org/ .