Community Canvas: Checking in on a storied South Side arthouse

Located in the center of Bronzeville, the South Side Community Art Center is noteworthy for both its legacy and the myriad events it supports there today. The oldest African-American art center in the country, it was founded in 1941 as a Works Progress Administration-led community arts center and has for over sixty years facilitated the creation of art in Bronzeville and on the South Side. The center has helped inject a sense of spontaneity and creative drive into the South Side arts community, and continues to play an important role in the city’s African-American art scene.

Approaching the center, you immediately notice the contrast between the architecture of the building and its rather vacant surroundings. Located on South Michigan Avenue, it’s a small three-story building done notably in New Bauhaus style–one of the few in the country. There’s an exhibition space on the first floor, and a room where anyone can just come and hang paintings. The gallery space possesses a really endearing DIY feel. Apparently, they’ve just started “putting canvas behind the paintings on display in the main gallery,” according to Mary the receptionist. Don’t look for long tracts or elaborate organization to the pieces; a refreshing sense of “art by real people” pervades the entire building. The space presents art at its most democratic: you can literally see in the back paintings that are soon to be hung up, the room off of the main gallery which contained paintings from floor to ceiling by local artists giving one a real sense that someone came in here, off the street, who had painted this and hung it up themselves. The entire process is laid bare to the viewer.

The South Side Community Art Center’s new curator Faheem Majeed, a sculptor and graduate of Howard University, apparently has big plans for the center, bringing with him a sense of “order” and motivation. The drive is apparent: a show on “the urban community” of Chicago titled “Urban Renewal,” with work done by alumni and students from the Art Institute, opens April 6. There’s an auction coming up in June, regular after-school classes and graphic design classes for adults, and the center holds regular meetings of the Chicago African American Alliance of Photographers, amongst a variety of other events of interest. One gets the impression that the South Side Community Art Center is really trying to build a network of artists that know and work with one another: the Center is making an active effort to get kids involved in the creation of art and to imbue an appreciation of art into the area.

A show entitled “Reexamining America’s Misconception” is just ending; comprised of a variety of paintings by South Side native artist Floyd Atkins, it consists of a series of headshots that seem straight off the back of a milk carton or a wanted poster. The paintings are done almost entirely in black and red, using the white of the canvas as a stark background. The series consists of figures either in silhouette or facing forward, with the word “wanted” written over their heads in red and little fragments of text scattered across the image. These fragments, consisting of cryptic allusions to perhaps pieces of conversation, thoughts, phrases like “daddy was a rolling stone” and “thank god I didn’t go to church today, Birmingham 1963” suggest songs, private histories, and key events in the civil rights movement. This series seems primarily concerned with the “image” of the African-American, and the arc of Black history in America. In one piece, a portrait is placed alongside a reference to the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, a center for the civil rights movement, in Birmingham Alabama. Clearly we are supposed to posit the image of the African-American projected by the media both in the 1960s and perhaps today against the realities of the era. The image of the dehumanized African-American is contrasted with injustices committed throughout American history to African-Americans and aspects of the “humanity” that the “wanted” poster and certain versions of history attempt to deny. Several of the paintings are accompanied with piles of knick-knacks attached to the canvases; these seem to be either further examples of misleading media that promote a racist vision of America. In the case of the Birmingham painting, one can make out a page from a child’s “Dick and Jane” book, and other items that may have belonged to a child–in this case suggesting the possessions of the young girls murdered in Birmingham. Atkins’ paintings have a certain raw emotional power to them; their blunt message (although some might criticize it for its frankness) doesn’t really hurt the show–one could argue that in fact it adds to its ability to affect. Perhaps the topic Atkins is approaching is one that does not demand subtlety.

The room to the side of the main gallery, with art for sale by a variety of artists, is filled with portraits, landscapes, photographs, and numerous other types of pieces. These cover a vast number of topics, but the theme of African-American history is visible once again. There are photographs and paintings from the jazz era, a pair of African masks, and a painting of a woman with children in Africa, among other works that address this notion of the arc of African-American history. Besides, this is an eclectic collection of pieces with no real underlying theme; instead, it is presented as a smorgasbord of recent work created by local artists. The works really have no organization, but once again this contributes to the eclectic character of the center. It was interesting, albeit unusual, to see such a survey of art in so many different forms by so many different artists at once.

The South Side Community Art Center is of absolute interest if one is the least bit interested in African-American Art, the history of the South Side, or what is going on in the art world in the South-Side today. Not only is the very center itself steeped in history of the South Side, but the pieces within bode well for the future of the South Side’s art community.