Out at the Center

They were there.

No fuss, no ballyhoo, but queer artists have been a significant part of Bronzeville’s South Side Community Art Center since its founding in 1940.

You might or might not see it in the art.

That’s the main takeaway from “EMERGENCE: Intersections at the Center,” on exhibit at SSCAC through July 2.

“EMERGENCE: Intersections at the Center”
Through 7/2: Tue-Sat, noon-4 PM or by appointment; South Side Community Art Center, 3831 S. Michigan, 773-373-1026, sscartcenter.org, free.

In the early decades, while vice squads were policing relationships between consenting adults and exposure could mean ruin, artists (and just about everyone else) tended to be discreet about their personal lives.

But there was coded messaging. The exhibit includes a 1946 letter from painter Ellis Wilson, then based in New York, that asks the Center’s director to connect a visiting friend with “the kind [of people] he knows here—he has a lot of artist friends here.”

Read into it what you will.

Ditto for Wilson’s 1947 oil painting, Figure on Beach (on loan from Bates College Museum of Art). It presents a Black man reclining on sand, his blue pants, a basket of colorful fish, an aura of mystery.  

In that persecuting environment, SSCAC and Bronzeville itself—which had a rich, multifaceted nightlife—were known as relatively welcoming spaces. The exhibition brochure notes that “well-known Black gay authors Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Alain Locke, and Lorraine Hansberry all had substantial ties” to the Center.  

“We tend to think of the south side as conservative,” cocurator (and SSCAC’s archives and collections manager) LaMar R. Gayles Jr. says, “but in actuality there was a lot of cultural diversity.” That said, Gayles adds, “I think, in most of the 20th century, artists felt like if they were known as gay and Black, they would have two hurdles to jump. And one hurdle could pit them against their own people.”

The show, cocurated with SSCAC programs and public engagement manager Zakkiyyah Najeebah Dumas-O’Neal, and organized by Northwestern University professor and SSCAC board member Rebecca Zorach, focuses mainly on the period from 1940 to the 1980s, and on the diverse work of 11 artists, most of it drawn from SSCAC’s own collection. It includes those who, today, would be comfortable identifying as LGBTQ+, along with a few known as allies and inspirations. Many of them came here to study at the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the few major art schools open to Black students in the earlier part of the 20th century.  

The exhibit occupies the Center’s first and second floor galleries, and is broken into four thematic groups covering early years, nightlife, mixed media and still life, and the human figure. The work ranges from Bobbe Cotton’s 1946 costume design for SSCAC’s famous annual Artists and Models Ball to Ralph Arnold collages, Mikki Ferrill photos, and Berry Horton’s sophisticated midcentury modern semi-abstractions. Horton’s satirical and fantastical pen drawings—the most sexually explicit pieces in the show—are housed in an “adult content” vitrine.

A pair of sculpted heads, by artists working three-quarters of a century apart, bookend the whole thing: Richmond Barthé’s naturalistic 1938 Shoe Shine Boy, and Juarez Hawkins’s 2012 Headtrip II.  

Headtrip II by Juarez Hawkins. Credit: Deanna Isaacs

“SSCAC was a venue when there weren’t many venues for Black artists,” Hawkins told me. “My generation had it easier in terms of access. There were more venues popping up, and it was a time where it was more comfortable being LGBTQ. You didn’t have to be underground so much. In the 40s, 50s, even into the 60s, in Black communities, it was there, but not there, in a way. You knew who may be queer in your community, but didn’t have these labels. Women who loved women didn’t necessarily call themselves lesbians. I don’t remember anyone calling themselves gay when I was coming up, and my mother had a number of queer friends. There was an underground, and if you were in the circle you knew who was who. But this was also a time when it was dangerous to be openly gay: you could lose your job, you could lose your family. So, an interesting tightrope.”  

Seen from the front, the Hawkins piece is a straightforward woman’s face in the style of Barthé, whom she admires. It could be a well-behaved companion piece to his shoe shine boy. But from the back, it’s Barthé exploded—a cacophony of other heads and voices bursting from the skull in their own surprising emergence.

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