Illuminating Perspectives: Art and Social Justice

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Senior Advisor, Communications and Development

When artist and educator Cecil McDonald Jr. began working with children in the Chicago Public Schools some years ago, he heard something that disturbed him. The children were enjoying themselves in the playground and appeared to be carefree, but when Cecil interviewed them, he heard them “repeating the grand narratives of violence and pain,” a narrative that was created by adults and taught to them through the media they consumed.

Cecil McDonald, Jr. offers a guided tour to the Chicago Peace Fellows, including Dawn Hodges (left), Alex Levesque, Robin Cline, Adi Lerner, Ethan Michaeli (staff), Maria Velazquez and Jeanette Coleman.

He resolved to do something about it by creating images that find dignity and beauty in the everyday activities of African American families, and by empowering the youths to document their own lives through photography.

“I made that my charge,” McDonald said. “You ask them: ‘What image do you see? How do you see those images?’ And then you give them the camera so they can go out and tell their own stories.”

Jane Saks of Project& (left), Cecil McDonald, Jr. and Chicago Peace Fellows Coordinator Burrell Poe discuss the role of the arts in social change movements.

McDonald recently hosted the Chicago Peace Fellows at his exhibit of photographs entitled “In the Company of Black” at the Chicago Cultural Center. Containing large, posed images of African American subjects performing quotidian activities inside their homes – reading, sleeping, playing, getting ready for the day – the exhibit was created by McDonald over seven years to represent what he described as the “extraordinarily ordinary.”

“Artists are in the business of creating truth, creating magic. I depend on my ability to create to make the everyday seem extreme.” -- Cecil McDonald, Jr.

For McDonald as for the other artists, the work had a common purpose with teachers, organizers and others working to empower communities. While artists are usually “the last ones brought in,” McDonald said artists focus people’s energy, reconstitute their self-image, and define their purpose.

Chicago Peace Fellow Robert Biekman (left) listens to Chicago artist Tonika Johnson explain how her Folded Map project brings different parts of the city together with fellow panelist Jane Saks.

McDonald was one of several artists who spoke to the Peace Fellows in an April 2nd workshop hosted by the Chicago Cultural Center entitled "Illuminating Perspectives: The Role of the Arts in Social Change." Tonika Lewis Johnson presented her Folded Map Project while artistic director Jane Saks talked about the intersections between art and social justice and the work of Project&, and Rahmaan Statik Barnes discussed his work as a street artist and muralist.

Tonika’s Folded Map Project utilizes Chicago’s long north-south streets to make visual connections between residents who live at corresponding addresses on the North and South sides of the city. She began the project as a photographic study but it proved very popular with the residents themselves, who enjoyed meeting their ‘opposite,’ and quickly gained widespread attention from mainstream media outlets so that Tonika added video and a new web site. The Folded Map Project is an investigation of urban segregation and its impacts on the people’s everyday lives.

Chicago Peace Fellows Velvian Boswell (left), Maria Velazquez, Robert Biekman, and Dawn Hodges review the photography exhibit In the Company of Black by Cecil McDonald, Jr.

The founding president of the Chicago-based Project&, Jane Saks has participated and led many different kinds of collaborations between artists and activists such as “Working in America,” a traveling exhibition and web archive inspired by Pulitzer Prize-winner Studs Terkel’s 1974 book “Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do,” a gathering of photos and stories of working folk in 17 states.

Jane enthusiastically cited her experiences to aver that artistic collaborations are uniquely situated to function as an ‘ecology’ where issues of equality and equity can be defined and discussed.

“In an ecology, things are not equal. They’re equitable. We’re not born with equality, but we can work for equity.” -- Jane Saks

Turning to the Peace Fellows, Jane pointed out the similarities between their work as grassroots organizers and artists.

“As community activists, as social justice leaders, what you’re working to do is what people in the arts do,” Jane said. “Social justice workers and artists are both envisioning a future and creating things into existence.”

The Peace Fellows also heard from Rahmaan Statik, a public artist, designer, fine artist, illustrator and art teacher, who described the inspirations he received growing up on the South Side surrounded by urban art and public murals. A co-founder of a graphic arts and mural collective called R.K Design, Statik has produced over 400 murals and earned commissions for Coca Cola, Toyota, the village of Rosemont, and Red Bull, among other corporate clients.

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