For artist and educator Alexandra Antoine, apprenticing in traditional artistic practices has been a pathway to building intergenerational connections not only in Chicago, but globally. To date, her creative talents have been cultivated across the African continent in Mali, Benin and Kenya, and in the Caribbean in Cuba and Haiti.
“When I travel, I see what is needed when it comes to learning art from traditional masters. Learning from artisans native to a specific region is more observational and requires active listening. You have to be able to look, listen, feel and be present with the work in front of you,” Antoine says.
By nourishing her skills in art forms that have been passed down for several generations and through cultures—including woodworking, weaving, collage, beadwork, painting and printmaking—Antoine often represents people from the African diaspora within the larger narrative of her Haitian identity. She credits her interest in traditional artistic practices to her maternal grandparents, whom she regularly visited in her family’s place of origin in Léogâne, Haiti—a coastal community west of the country’s capital in Port-au-Prince.
In addition to her art practice, Antoine is also a certified teacher in Illinois. “I wanted to teach students about art within the African diaspora and much of my curriculum was global,” Antoine says, tracing how she grew as an educator. “With all of the global experiences I’ve had, it was important for me to share this knowledge with the students, especially in the predominately African American schools that I taught at, like Dett Elementary, North Lawndale College Prep and Pirie Elementary. It’s important for students to see art that represents you.”
Antoine grew up in Miami and moved to Chicago in 2012 to study at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She received a fine arts degree, with an emphasis on arts education, in 2014. She didn’t know anyone in the city when she first moved here, but expanded her network by volunteering and exhibiting her work at institutions such as the Artists’ Cooperative Residency & Exhibitions (ACRE), the Haitian American Museum of Chicago, the Hyde Park Art Center, the South Side Community Art Center, Spudnik Press and the Stony Island Arts Bank.
Much of the work in her installations are hand-made pieces that explore the intersection of food, farming and visual culture—an interest that came from childhood experiences in Haiti. “My grandfather was a farmer his entire life. His house is where I saw chickens, horses, goats—vital components of farm and agriculture. They were part of my scenery. To incorporate farming into my artistic practice definitely feels full circle,” says Antoine.
Her collection of screenprints “I Followed the Drinking Gourd and it Led Me to Myself/Love/Healing/Community,” developed through a residency at Spudnik Press, shows a series of images and patterns found within cuisine across the African diaspora to honor methods of cooking, visual details and culinary histories and traditions associated with popular ingredients including hibiscus, okra or black-eyed peas. Each image contains intricate layers of symbols and photographs that are reflective of the natural landscape and agriculture around the globe. The composition is meant to replicate the way intimate details, such as scents and surfaces, take shape in one’s memory. “A lot of the foods in countries across the African continent and in the Caribbean contain the same ingredients, but as I traveled, I noticed that they were prepared in different ways,” she says. “It showed me that while they may have specific memories for me, many ingredients and crops have traveled throughout the diaspora. Learning about crops and their history allows me to understand people’s cultures.”
In 2019, her creative practice expanded through a residency with the Urban Growers’ Collective (UGC)—a Black-led nonprofit farm in Chicago, working to build a more just and equitable local food system.
Throughout the year, Antoine worked with the organization to provide arts education classes to teens that included teaching printmaking classes in addition to gardening techniques. “I approached this residency by seeing the farm as my studio, and investigating how art can be used as a tool for engagement,” says Antoine.
When the pandemic hit in 2020, Antoine brought this concept to life. The food company Barilla, in partnership with UGC, commissioned her to design the exterior of a bus as part of relaunching the UGC’s Fresh Moves Mobile Market program, which provides BIPOC communities hardest hit from the pandemic with over 2,000 pounds of fresh produce, five days per week, throughout the year. Customers board the bus and fill their bags with local vegetables, produce and fruit. Antoine’s design was intended to bring joy, emotion and cultural connection to the communities the bus serves.
“The intention I had for the food collages was to showcase communities of color, particularly Black people and neighborhoods, in the context of abundance and healthy foods,” Antoine says. “The images go against negative stereotypes of our communities not having enough. All images included are either UGC staff members, volunteers or the children of staff. This is because I wanted the project to be reflective of UGC’s mission and the people that work there who allow their programs to happen everyday. They should shine. The project showed me that you never know how an idea can blossom, who it can touch and most importantly, what form it can evolve into.”
In March 2022, Antoine was named the inaugural artist-in-resident at Legler Regional Library in West Garfield Park, where she will spend the next two years developing public art projects, as well as art programs for the community. “I’ve been taking the time to connect with community groups, volunteer and go to events,” she says. “When it comes to connecting with people and building a network and community, you have to show up for people first, and then ask for what you need. It’s a two-year residency, which allows me the time to build up relationships, so whoever comes behind me has some kind of foundation to stand on.”
In the future, Antoine plans to continue to build her practice by exploring art forms that have deep roots in African diasporic cultures.
“When learning a new technique, I ask myself ‘What traditional skills am I drawn to and how can I connect to folks to learn them?’” she says. “This ongoing inquiry helps fuel all of the other artistic programs that I do. I’ll always keep a part of my practice dedicated to this: curiosity.” (Sabrina Greig)