Peace Talks

(Courtesy of Ten Thousand Ripples)

The intersection of East 87th Street and South Commercial Avenue in South Chicago appears safe, spacious, and lively. Countdown timers usher groups of pedestrians across the wide streets, through an intersection framed by a dollar store, car dealership, and liquor store. The streets are made of solid and unblemished concrete, the buildings of weather-worn brick. For the residents of this neighborhood, the corner’s banality has veiled a terrible memory.

On November 13, 2009, Latin Kings member Michael Vilella was shot and killed while standing near the intersection with a female companion in the early morning. Five days later, Luis Garcia stood at a small, temporary memorial for his fallen friend. Garcia had tried to transfer high schools to leave behind his gang and start anew, but failed due to poor grades and his criminal record. In a space for grief and reflection on the awful consequences of the gang violence he grew up in, he was fatally shot through the chest by a gunman some 400 feet away.

The intersection sits at the crossroads of the Latin Kings, Ambrose, and Latin Dragons territory. It’s not an easy life to escape; the death of these two boys serves as a painful reminder of that fact.  Since the shootings, the community of South Chicago has held this memory as a symbol of the uphill battle for safety. Indira Johnson’s new project, Ten Thousand Ripples, hopes to offer the neighborhood a new perspective on the future.

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“So, it doesn’t seem like this is about the physical Buddha heads,” I tell her. We’re sitting in a busy Uptown Starbucks near one of the proposed locations for the 100 Buddha heads she plans to build. According to the plans, the heads will be three feet in diameter and seemingly half-submerged in the ground.

She laughs and elaborates on the project’s goal: “I guess a lot of the communities are looking for a way to get people to come together and talk to each other.” There are ten participating organizations in ten Chicago neighborhoods. Each hopes to bring a Buddha head to their community and start a conversation about an issue important to their quality of life. “It’s more about the fact that the Buddha [head] will be there,” she explains.

Johnson is white-haired and kind, a full-time practicing artist and peace activist for over 20 years. Her work has appeared across the United States, in Mumbai, and in Brussels; her solo exhibitions have made it throughout Chicago and the Midwest, including a spot in the Museum of Contemporary Art. She draws inspiration from the same man as her artist father and activist mother: Gandhi. “They said he was the half-naked man who took on the British Empire!” she says joyfully.

Jackie Samuel, New Communities Program Director of the South Chicago host organization, Claretian Associates, shares Johnson’s spiritual affinity for peace rhetoric. “I’m hoping that people see the Buddha head and go, ‘What’s that? Why is it here?’ So that when…that conversation starts, we can start engaging the community. People will talk about what we need, and that need is peace.”

More so than Johnson, Samuel appears to feel the burden of her community on her shoulders. She grew up nearby, and now works towards “positive economic, physical, and social change” though the arts. There’s real hope that this new project will work to create just that, ten thousand ripples throughout Chicago.

First, the host organizations will survey residents to help decide on a location for the Buddha head based on how they want to help their community. For South Chicago, it’s definitely an issue of safety. The heads will stand three feet tall, emerging from concrete, gravel, or grass, a completely white face with revealed nose, eyes, and hair tied in a bun, hopefully accompanied by a QR code on the side.

It is striking, unavoidable–you have to wonder why it’s there. Or that’s what Johnson hopes. Like Samuel, she envisions residents striking up a conversation about it with a stranger on the street. As these conversations occur over and over, a broader dialogue can grow to bring the whole community closer.

But really, why the half-Buddha head?

“It stemmed from the image of the Buddha in my art,” Johnson tells me. Large Buddha heads were placed in the center of a carpet on a platform as part of a previous solo exhibition of hers. Without any prompting, people naturally began sitting down in groups in front of the Buddha. She tried it again and again. No matter where the exhibition was, they all felt the “same response of feeling peaceful,” says Johnson. A simple concept, to be sure, but she wondered, “if we had them out in the streets, what could the response be?”

As a universal icon for peace, a balance of the secular and spiritual, it’s hoped the Buddha head will resonate with all people, no matter their race or religion. The project knows itself to be “ambitious in its breadth, and bold in its objective,” according to Kickstarter.com.

As of press time, the Kickstarter campaign to fund Ten Thousand Ripples is unaccomplished. The website warns, “This project will only be funded if at least $15,000 is pledged by Sunday, May 20, 4:59AM GMT.” A donation to the project is a gamble in favor of unnamed groups for undecided purposes, a risked dollar in faith that these Chicago communities can succeed in a creative pursuit for peace. Some may argue that if money will be spent, it should go elsewhere–to the schools and police. But this project offers a new solution for a problem that is becomingly uncomfortably familiar.