Chicago — “Stop the murder of brothers and sisters.” “Liberate our nation.” “Unite.” The exhortations, on the vibrantly colored canvas of Gerald Williams’s “Messages,” couldn’t be more timely. Yet it is nearly 50 years old, made in 1970 during another politically fraught period in this country’s history.
Mr. Williams is among the dozens of black artists from the South Side of Chicago who for years were overlooked by museums in their own backyard. Now, with a wide-ranging retrospective focusing on the contributions of these artists, the Smart Museum of Art is working to address that omission. After years of displaying art by predominantly white artists, the museum is not only committing itself to inclusivity but also embracing ideologically charged art.
The exhibition, “The Time Is Now! Art Worlds of Chicago’s South Side 1960-1980,” which opened in September and runs through Dec. 30, is part corrective, part history lesson, part reintroduction.
Mr. Williams, now 77 — whose home on the South Side isn’t very far from where “Messages” now hangs in the museum on the University of Chicago campus — made his painting as a member of AfriCobra (the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists), artists who sought to reflect the reality of being black in America at the time and to inspire and uplift black people.
“Our message of empowerment from then is still the same,” said Jae Jarrell, 82, an AfriCobra artist and designer. She has two works in the show, “Dahomey Ensemble,” a replica of a woman’s full-length skirt and jacket outfit from 1973 made of leather pieces cut and set in a pattern on suede, and “Gent’s Great Coat,” a 1973 suede jacket with appliqué leather. Both were inspired by traditional African attire.
“We reflected, and still do, on our heritage, our roots and our strength,” Ms. Jarrell said. “All too often we were thought of as being a people without a beginning or not knowing where our roots were.”
In addition to “The Time Is Now!,” she and her husband, the painter Wadsworth Jarrell, also have works in the exhibition “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” at the Brooklyn Museum, including one of her most well-known designs, “Revolutionary Suit.” That two-piece tweed A-line skirt suit with bell sleeves from the early 1960s “had to be A-line so women could march,” she said.
AfriCobra artists’ work had a following, but it never received the kind of widespread attention it has garnered in recent years.
“We showed Off Broadway, so to speak,” Mr. Williams said. “Our work wasn’t shown on the North Side where the big galleries were. They wouldn’t take it.”
For Carolyn Mims Lawrence, 78, an art teacher and AfriCobra member, knowing that the art she created decades ago is still pertinent today is bittersweet. “It’s sobering to realize how deep some of the resentment and lack of acceptance still is,” she said, referring to racism. “It’s an illness in this country.”
Her paintings here include an acrylic on canvas titled “Pops,” depicting Arthur Wills, a musician known as Pops, and the 1971 screen print “Uphold Your Men,” showing a woman standing with her arms crossed amid bold colors and patterns. Ms. Lawrence said it as a reminder about the importance of family.
“There were a lot of bad things going on and we wanted to say to our people ‘your lives are not a throwaway and this suffering, we don’t want it to go on,’” Ms. Lawrence said. “We’ve made progress since then, but all that we said then is still relevant today.”
The show’s curator, Rebecca Zorach, said she saw the exhibition, which she started working on five years ago, as an opportunity to belatedly give South Side artists the wider recognition they deserve. “The Time Is Now!” is part of a series called South Side Stories, which is backed by a grant from the Terra Foundation’s Art Design Chicago, a joint effort of more than 60 organizations with over 25 exhibitions and hundreds of public programs in the city. (The Terra Foundation is a privately run nonprofit that supports art exhibitions and projects.)
“It started as a broad survey of the South Side but then inescapable themes emerged like politics, unity, struggle, displacement, gentrification, and we decided to start focus on some of those,” Ms. Zorach said.
The Smart has been on the South Side since 1974, but its new director, Alison Gass, arrived at the museum last year and said she was determined to show the work of artists from a range of backgrounds.
“We’re humbled to work with these artists who have been excluded from the canon and haven’t gotten their due,” Ms. Gass said. “We are course-correcting.”
The Smart’s efforts go beyond a handful of exhibitions. Many of the museum’s paid docents are from the South Side, whose residents have long been underemployed; the university’s art history department is working closely with the museum to shift its curriculum to include artists who have typically been excluded from art history courses in Western universities.
South Side artists knew their work was welcome and appreciated in a few black-owned spaces: at Osun, a gallery owned and run by Yaoundé Olu from 1968 to 1982, at the DuSable Museum of African American History, and at the South Side Community Art Center, which provided many of the works in “The Time Is Now!”
Dr. Olu’s artwork is in the exhibition as well, along with ephemera from the gallery, including posters for performances, training sessions and exhibits.
“I’ve known about the Smart Museum forever, but it never even occurred to me to be involved,” Dr. Olu, 73, said. “I was always interested in the institutions that were already in my community like the DuSable. Still, I am very happy that the Smart is being inclusive.”
The work of Dr. Olu, who sought to bring a sense of community to her neighborhood, would be considered Afrofuturist today, but when she made it, the term didn’t exist. At the time, she said, she was thinking of the past, the present and the future.
Her mission was similar to that of the AfriCobra artists.
“You do things because they are important to you and not because you’ve got to have anyone’s approval,” Ms. Lawrence said. “You do things because they are part of your own growth and development, but it is just wonderful also to have the validation of institutions that completely ignored you — totally misunderstood what it was that you were doing.”
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