The Chicago Park District’s Art and Culture Unit launched a simple yet radical community art program last month at Austin Town Hall: the inaugural project of its Anchor Curatorial Residency. The yearlong residency, a program announced this summer, is a funded, community-driven position that places a curator at a different Chicago Park District cultural center for each iteration.
For the exhibition “Finding Ceremony,” 2022 Anchor curator Tiffany M. Johnson wanted to explore the tensions that Black and Brown people feel when accessing public space, such as a Park District cultural center. “My experience with the residency was literally just about the process,” Johnson says. “It’s not about having the answer, it’s not about getting it right. It’s more about, what is that process of being honest about those two tensions around like the grief, the anger, the frustration, the uncertainty, the invisibility, the hyper-visibility, but also the care and the culture that’s there? What is the practice that we’re trying to build as we rebuild our relationships with public and natural landscapes?”
The exhibition has two components: an outdoor area with public artworks set up on the green space in front of the Town Hall, and an indoor, more traditional gallery setting, with 2-D works, sculpture and video. A small wooden performance venue was also built outside, as a base for weekly public programming that will take place for the show’s duration The outdoor infrastructure was designed by Walmer Saavedra of Human Scale and fabricated by Andrea Yarbrough of “in c/o: Black women,” giving the works a cohesive look.
Johnson has been embedded in Austin for the past year, working with a group of West Siders to plan the exhibition and programming so that it complements what exists in the community. For example, Johnson found that music and live performance are central to the neighborhood. So a DJ is set to perform on Thursday evenings to help draw folks to a food market at the Town Hall that day. Anchor contributed $3,000 to the market, enabling them to hand out more than a hundred $25 vouchers to members of the community.
The artists in the show hail from the South and West Sides, representing practices from painting to installation to photography. “I feel like Black art history in Chicago focuses a lot on the South Side,” says Johnson, who is a native South Side resident. She wanted to be sure to bring in West Side artists, with an emphasis on those looking to experiment with their practice.
Outdoors, a vibrant untitled painting by JaMaa Gee depicts a mystic vision infused with hypnotic geometric patterns. An installation by Edna M. Togba consists of a raised garden bed inlaid with half-hidden gems, a gilded mirror, a seaside image. Janelle Ayana Miller created a mobile-like sculpture, where beaded arms hang from tambourines, like a crocheted plant holder; at the bottom are laminated mementos paying homage to a local worker. A gorgeous violet and orange entryway by The Black Bloom Project (materials: light and possibilities) invites visitors through a portal into their imagination.
Indoors, in a downstairs gallery, the works are no less affecting. Of particular note is the looping of a short documentary by cai thomas on the successful community-led effort to rename Douglass Park, and two extraordinary home movies by Don McIlvaine.
“Finding Ceremony” is a beautiful culmination of Johnson’s residency, but the purpose of the position is about more than the programming and exhibition. “Part of that year is you’re building relationship with whichever space you’re in, you’re building relationship with community, you’re anchoring yourself more within that community,” Johnson says. On opening night, dozens of residents, representing every age group, gathered to see the work, enjoy free tacos and watch an uplifting performance by the group Eternal Resolve. The buoyant applause and overall positive vibes seemed to indicate one thing: Anchor was a resounding success. (Kerry Cardoza)
“Finding Ceremony” is on view at Austin Town Hall, 5610 West Lake, through October 22. Learn more about the programming at camp-chiparks.hub.arcgis.com/pages/anchor.