There is a thriving artist community in Chicago, so I was thrilled when I was invited by Artadia to conduct studio visits with a few of the city’s most active practioners. This opportunity also allowed me to learn more about artists outside of the mission of my institution, which is focused on supporting artists of color living and work on the west coast. Since I often sit on juries, panels and recommend artists for awards, I am able to advocate for artists outside of providing an exhibition opportunity. This trip to Chicago helped me think of artists for these opportunities outside of my normal purview and expand the types of artists I may consider. While I loved meeting with all of the artists on the itinerary, below are a few highlights.

  • Bernard Williams is a multimedia artist whose sculptural works explore American culture and consumption. For his car series, Williams recreates a wide variety of contemporary automobiles in plywood and paint. From racecars to electric cars, these striking works cast a critical lens on issues as diverse as corporate branding and environmental concerns. These motionless, powerless wooden cars often appear parked on the street or illuminated in store display windows, adjacent to the real cars they emulate.  
  • Bethany Collins works at the intersection of race and language. Her thoughtful, often subversive pieces unfold on chalkboards, newspapers, books, and other channels of circulated text. One work presents a book with 100 different versions of a traditional American song whose lyrics shift in relation to the song’s cause. Other works play with a lack of words, erasing letters and sentences from transcribed texts and dictionaries or purposely blurring the letters to render these politicized messages illegible. Using innuendo, double entendre, and other modes of playing with language, Collins articulates important messages about history and contemporary society.
  • LaMont Hamilton is a performance artist, photographer, and filmmaker whose provocative works examine the broad subject of blackness. His performances cull from history, where he invokes triggering language and loaded props such as rope. His pieces take cues from older artists and apply collaborative efforts, invoking ghosts as he probes the idea of truth. In his timely presentations, he brings important yet disturbing themes to the fore.
  • Ian Weaver’s sculptures and drawings engage memory and fiction. He produces outlined maps of Chicago that depict the formerly African American “Black Bottom” section of the Near West Side of Chicago—a neighborhood that once stood but has since vanished. These maps are thus archival objects but at the same time futile tools to find that which has been lost. He delves further into the realm of the imagined with his knight pieces, works that reference a made-up group called the Black Knights which employ the signifiers of medieval nights and Black Nationalists from the 1940s. For Weaver, history and myth are interlaced in the present.

I concluded my trip with a conversation with Naomi Beckwith at the MCA Chicago, which was a real treat since we’ve been friends for years. We discussed our curatorial practice, current state of the contemporary art world and artists we’re working with for future exhibitions.

Naima J. Keith joined the California African American Museum (CAAM) in 2016 as the Deputy Director, Exhibitions and Programs to guide the curatorial and education departments as well as marketing and communications. During her tenure at CAAM, Naima has also curated Hank Willis Thomas: Black Righteous Space (2016), Genevieve Gaignard: Smell the Roses (2016) and Kenyatta Hinkle: The Evanesced (2017). Previously an Associate Curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem (2011-2016), her notable exhibitions include: Rodney McMillian: Views of Main Street (2016), Artists in Residence 2014-2015 (2015), Samuel Levi Jones: Unbound (2015), Titus Kaphar (2014), Glenn Kaino (2014) and Robert Pruitt (2013), The Shadows Took Shape (co-curated with Zoe Whitley, 2013), Fore (co-curated with Lauren Haynes and Thomas J. Lax, 2012). Her historical survey, Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974 – 1989 (2014), traveled to the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, CA spring 2015 and was nominated in 2014 for a “Best Monographic Museum Show in New York” award by the International Association of Art Critics (AICA-USA). Between 2008-2011, Naima worked as a Curatorial Fellow at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, serving as the primary contact for the groundbreaking exhibition Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980, organized by guest curator Kellie Jones. She has lectured at the Zoma Contemporary Art Center; Columbia University; The Museum of Modern Art; and Brooklyn Museum. Her essays have been featured in publications for The Studio Museum in Harlem, Hammer Museum, Perez Art Museum Miami, LAXART, MoMA PS1, and NKA: Journal of Contemporary African Art. Naima holds degrees from Spelman College and UCLA is a proud native of Los Angeles.