East 47th Street is lined with confusing sights. Moving west from Kenwood into Bronzeville, one passes boarded-up storefronts and empty lots and a long-abandoned gas station whose hand-painted sign advertises gas for $1.26 a gallon. However, among the decay are signs speaking of vibrant life: new housing, restaurants, and high-end clothing stores. Approaching from the east, the corner of 47th Street and King Drive opens like a flower on a patch of dusty earth, its striking beauty unexpected by a first-time visitor unfamiliar with the South Side beyond Hyde Park.
Over the next few years, the number of unfamiliar will certainly shrink. John Martin, organizer of last weekend’s African American Fine Art Show puts his estimate at five years: five years down the road, Bronzeville will be a household name, a culture and entertainment destination for all peoples of Chicago right alongside Wicker Park. He calls what is happening now a renaissance, a return to Bronzeville’s former cultural glory that is also forward-thinking and fully grounded in the present. The immediate area surrounding the Parkway Ballroom, site of the show, is already full of creative expression: SteeleLife Gallery and the Spoken Word Cafe are only a block or so away, and the South Side Community Art Center isn’t far. It’s only a matter of time until the stretch of Halsted in Pilsen known as the Chicago Art District meets its match.
The African American Fine Art Show was organized by John Martin to provide talented mid-career artists a venue for exhibition. In his opinion, the museum system of art exhibition and the mainstream art market leave a lot to be desired. The European masters are household names and their works are traded for millions of dollars. Other equally talented artists are ignored. The African American Fine Art Show is a place for those who, in another world, could have been Picassos.
The art on display at the African American Fine Arts Show highlighted many different faces of the Bronzeville renaissance. Artwork is grounded in history, but also engages with contemporary society. Artists drew on history in many ways in their work, finding inspiration in a range of sources from “primitive” art to Works Progress Administration artists. In engaging with society today, many artists stressed the ability of man to shape his own fate. Abiola is a Nigerian artist who now lives in the south suburbs of Chicago. His work is firmly grounded in discipline and the power of the individual. He says that he does not begin a work until finishing the one before it. It is easy to begin new projects and to leave old ones unfinished, but to him, art is about self-control. The imagery that he uses is clearly meant to inspire others to such discipline. Ballet dancers, epitomizing self control, are a recurring motif in his sculptures. One such sculpture features a dancer contorted in a seemingly impossible way, balancing some clay bowls on her feet. The title of the piece sums up Abiola’s personal philosophy: “All Things Are Possible.” Another artist, Rukiya, also uses her art to inspire. Driven from her home by hurricane Katrina, Rukiya has been using her art as a type of personal therapy. She hopes that others coping with similar pain will see in her artwork the effort of an individual to save herself, instead of waiting around for someone else’s help.
Though the focus of the African American Fine Art Show was indeed on African-American art, the artists found their work to be universal. Melvin Clark, an artist specializing in vividly colored and lively paintings asked me which of his works are African-American art. Trick question. He would rather it simply be considered art.