Fed up by the hegemonic, large-scale art biennials that proliferate year after year, local curators Sadie Woods and La Keisha Leek launched The Petty Biennial in 2017. The two didn’t envision the project as an actual biennial; they saw it as a one-off artistic intervention, a space where they could work with artists who are pushed to the margins of the mainstream art world.
“In this Biennial format, we are centering these communities of artists through hyper-visible representation, presenting work that comes from a lived experience and is reflective of our sociopolitical climate,” Woods said in an interview about the project.
The Petty Biennial is back. The founders passed the curatorial torch to Courtney Cintrón, Sabrina Greig and Adia Sykes for The Petty Biennial.2. For the new curators, the pettiness is a way to take up space, “a performative gesture that seeks liberation through exposing, and finding humor in oppressive social systems.”
“We’ve talked about it as a clapback,” Cintrón says. “Culture as disruption. How can we disrupt dominant narratives?”
The three curators have put together an impressive exhibition across three locations: Glass Curtain Gallery, Heaven Gallery and NYCH Gallery.
“We wanted to be very intentional about putting the exhibition in other communities,” Sykes says.
The first iteration of the project featured artists with perspectives stemming from North and Central America and the Caribbean. This version expands on that theme by “centering multiple cultural diasporas as a nexus of local exchange and dialogue for marginalized and queer communities.” The sixteen participating artists bring a range of voices and a diversity of practice, from Jacquelyn Carmen Guerrero, who draws inspiration from her Cuban and Puerto Rican roots, to Yasmin Spiro, a cross-disciplinary artist who often explores cultural identity through Caribbean culture.
The curators were intentional about challenging the notion of what diaspora means. “Participating artists understand diaspora as a network and community of people across races, geographies and ethnicities who are [affected] and connected through the legacies of colonialism, imperialism and neoliberalism,” they write.
Zakkiyyah Najeebah displays prints and collage mining her family history—both her adopted family and her biological one. Carlos Barberena born in Nicaragua, contributes tender linocuts that refers to the migration of people from Central and South America to the north.
“One of his pieces is called ‘The Beast.’ It’s in direct reference to this route of people, originating in Central America, and actually riding on the top of cargo trains to the United States and attempting to cross the border,” Sykes says. “There’s a very direct reference to something like immigration, whether it be forged because of the circumstances in one’s country of origin, or kind of voluntarily moving from one place to another. We felt that was really an important perspective to have, of course a timely discussion in today’s day and age with immigration, particularly of brown folks from Central and South America. That felt vital to have in any discussion about diaspora.”
While not every participating artist is currently based in Chicago, all have strong ties to the city. Over the course of the show’s curation, some artists moved for other opportunities, such as Amina Ross, who is now at Yale.
“They’re in many ways divorced from Chicago, which was their home and community as well,” Sykes says. “We thought that added another layer.”
The biennial will feature programming at the satellite sites throughout the duration of the exhibition. The December 6 opening at Heaven Gallery includes performances. Also at Heaven, on December 14 and 15, the curators have organized “A Petty Weekend,” which includes a brunch and a healing workshop. Later in December, Najeebah and participating artist Alexandria Eregbu will lead a family legacy journaling workshop at 6018North.
Sykes sees the discourse of The Petty Biennial on par with those large-scale international biennials, which also look critically at the history of exhibition-making and funding practices, as well as issues of diversity and inclusion. Though The Petty Biennial is potentially doing much better than those peers. The Whitney Biennial, which closed in October, was plagued by protests and furor over the museum’s refusal to dismiss Warren Kanders, the chief executive of a weapons manufacturing company, from its board. By uplifting marginalized voices since its inception, The Petty Biennial is already far ahead of many hallowed institutions.
Cintrón stresses the importance of seeing where the art world assigns value. “Is the explosion of biennials and all of the hype around that contributing to backwards values?” she asks. “Who are the artists that we’re valuing and the artworks and the communities that are being centered in these conversations?”
By challenging the dominant biennial culture, the curators hope their project can pave the way for a more inclusive art community.
“It’s taking a moment to envision and put into practice a radical future that we want to see,” Sykes says. “This exhibition in particular is, of course, founded by La Keisha and Sadie, and we have the beautiful opportunity of creating a microcosm of an art world or art experience that we would like to see in the world and hope that becomes a kind of normalized practice. It would be great to live in a world where having an exhibition of all folks who identify with diaspora and who are usually relegated to the margins—where that’s not a revolutionary thing. It shouldn’t be that big of a topic. We’re taking our own stab at creating a really beautiful and radical moment in time.” (Kerry Cardoza)
The Petty Biennial.2, Glass Curtain Gallery, 1104 South Wabash, through February 14, 2020; at Heaven Gallery, 1550 North Milwaukee, through January 19, 2020; and at Nych Gallery, 2025 South Laflin, through February 7, 2020.