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EMERGENCE: Intersections at the Center spotlights The South Side Community Art Center’s historical role in supporting a full spectrum of Black artists through an intersectional viewpoint. The first exhibition of its kind at the South Side Community Art Center, EMERGENCE positions the Center as an important anchor for Black LGBTQ artists who belonged to its community from its founding in 1940 to the 1980s. The exhibition features works addressing identity and community, queer spaces and performance, in collage, painting, sculpture, photography, and more.

EMERGENCE: Intersections at the Center spotlights The South Side Community Art Center’s historical role in supporting a full spectrum of Black artists through an intersectional viewpoint. The first exhibition of its kind at the South Side Community Art Center, EMERGENCE positions the Center as an important anchor for Black LGBTQ artists who belonged to its community from its founding in 1940 to the 1980s. The exhibition features works addressing identity and community, queer spaces and performance, in collage, painting, sculpture, photography, and more.

EXHIBIT

The exhibition is laid out in four sections: EARLY YEARS, NIGHTLIFE, PERFORMANCE, IDENTITY, MIXED MEDIA AND STILL LIFE, and OBLIQUE BODIES. It also includes historical ephemera of interest. Each section page contains a description of the themes represented there and information about the artworks exhibited in that section.

Nightlife, Performance,
Identity

Artists connected to the South Side Community Art Center were also part of intersecting communities that found homes and modes of self-expression in different spaces in the city. The Center’s own Artists and Models Balls involved playful displays that could embrace gender performance and ambiguity, and advertisers included gay bars and bars that featured…

Oblique Bodies

Works in EMERGENCE take part in the long tradition of representing the human form in art, and within that tradition they represent multiple different approaches. The depiction of the body might serve to express something about an artist’s sexuality, or identity—or it might serve very different purposes. The artists in EMERGENCE have multifaceted identities, and approach their work with many different…

ARTIST BIOGRAPHIES

Biographies authored by Gervais Marsh present an overview of the lives of artists in the exhibition

Curatorial Essays

Essays by the exhibition curators, zakkiyyah najeebah dumas o’neal and LaMar R. Gayles, Jr., provide particular insights into two of the featured artists, MIKKI FERRILL and BERRY HORTON.

AIN’T DONE TRYIN YET: ON FERRILL’S GAZE

by zakkiyyah najeebah dumas-o'neal

Exhibition Curator, Manager of Public Engagement and Programs

CALL ME BY MY NAME – TELL ME IN PRIVATE: THE PRACTICE OF BERRY HORTON

by LaMar R. Gayles, Jr.

Exhibition Curator, Archives and Collections Manager

History & Resources

EMERGENCE emphasizes the middle decades of the twentieth century, from the 1940s to the 1980s. For much of this time period, sexual orientation was heavily policed, both literally by the Chicago Police Department, and in a variety of other ways through the imposition of norms by society and its institutions, such as church, family, medical institutions, and school. For this reason, many of the artists in the exhibition, especially in the early decades represented here, were careful to exercise discretion in their life and work. Most did not publicly identify themselves as gay, lesbian, trans, or bisexual. At the same time, particularly in Bronzeville, Chicago’s South Side Black community held spaces that were open to participants of differing sexual orientations and identities. And political movements on behalf of Gay Liberation were active throughout this period, gaining strength in the 1970s and 80s.

Historical research reveals that many artists affiliated with the Center, even in its early decades, had romantic and sexual lives that included same-sex partners and desires. Whether this experience is visible in their work is another question entirely—one that we open up to our audience to help us consider, rather than making conclusive claims about it.

Alongside artists who might today identify as LGBTQIA+, EMERGENCE includes artists who depict spaces and performances that were part of the South Side’s queer life, or who collaborated with, influenced, or inspired other artists in the exhibition, without themselves necessarily being queer-identified.

More information about the artworks and historical documents exhibited in EMERGENCE can be found in the checklist and ephemera lists linked here. A syllabus by Gervais Marsh provides an introduction to the way historians and art historians have studied this material, providing historical context for the exhibition and a wealth of related ideas, images, documents, and questions for discussion.

Links & Downloads

SYLLABUS by Gervais Marsh, topics and readings for further exploration
CHECKLIST of all the artworks displayed in the exhibition
EPHEMERA list of historical documents and sketches in the exhibition
INTERVIEWS (Coming soon)

EXHIBITION EVENTS

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CREDITS

Major support for EMERGENCE was provided by a Terra Foundation Re-Envisioning Permanent Collections grant. Programming support is provided by Northwestern University Mary Jane Crowe Program funds.

Special thanks to South Side Community Art Center Executive Director Monique Brinkman-Hill for her unwavering support of this project; to Heidi Marshall at Columbia College Library for facilitating archival research; lenders to the exhibition, including the  Bates College Museum (Dan Mills and Corie Audette); the Block Museum (Kathleen Bickford Berzock, Janet Dees, Dan Silverstein, Joe Scott, and Kristina Bottomley); the Aaron Gallery (Patrick Albano and Lynne Schillaci); and Juarez Hawkins, Patric McCoy, and Margaret R. Vendryes and Jacqueline Herranz-Brooks. Additional thanks to Zahra Glenda Baker, Simone Bouyer, Chad Heap, Brian Leahy, Solveig Nelson, Michael W. Phillips, Jr., Gregory Sykes, and the Columbia College Department of Exhibitions.

Many thanks to The Woodshop and Block Museum for framing, to Faye Wrubel and the Graphic Conservation Company for conservation treatment paintings and works on paper respectively, and to Tony Smith for expert photography.

Exhibition Staff and Advisors

Exhibition curators: zakkiyyah najeebah dumas-o’neal and LaMar R. Gayles, Jr.
Curatorial researcher: Gervais Marsh
Curatorial intern: Chantel McCrea
Exhibitions manager: Lola Ogbara
Project advisor and editor: Rebecca Zorach
Publication designer: Aay Preston-Myint
Web design: That’s So Creative
Exhibition board of advisors: Kemi Adeyemi, Tristan Cabello, Aymar Jean Christian, Gregory Foster-Rice, Juarez Hawkins, Patricia McCombs, Patric McCoy, Shanta Nurullah, Margaret R. Vendryes

In Memoriam

In the final weeks of preparation for EMERGENCE, we learned of the passing of the artist and art historian Dr. Margaret Rose Vendryes (1955–2022). Margaret was an enthusiastic and early supporter of this exhibition project and generously offered her vast knowledge of early twentieth–century African American artists as a project advisor who also loaned a work in her personal collection (Richmond Barthé’s St. Sebastian) to the exhibition. We join with all who loved her in mourning her loss, we celebrate the legacy of her art and scholarship, and we express deep gratitude for the contributions that immeasurably enriched EMERGENCE.

EARLY YEARS

The earliest decades represented in EMERGENCE tell a story of migrations. Richmond Barthé and William Carter traveled to Chicago from Missouri. Charles Sebree and Ellis Wilson came from Kentucky. Allen Stringfellow came from Champaign, Illinois. Of the artists in this early generation, only Berry Horton was born in Cook County. The others were drawn by the possibility of studying at the Art Institute of Chicago—one of the few art schools that accepted Black students in the early 20th century—but even more by the cultural ferment of Black Chicago in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, including the circles around the South Side Community Art Center. Barthé, Sebree, and Wilson all eventually moved on to the East Coast, but they maintained deep ties with the Center, returning for exhibitions and corresponding with Center staff.

Although the well-known Black gay authors Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Alain Locke, and Lorraine Hansberry all had connections to the Center, sexual orientation has rarely been discussed in studies of visual artists who worked within its walls and in its broader community in the early decades. In the mid-twentieth century, sexual orientation was heavily surveilled by so-called “vice” laws and special police units. Deviations from the norm were punished, so secrecy often hung about forms of sexuality we now know as queer. This means that it is often hard to state anything with certainty about how these artists would have described their own sexual and social identities, although with each of these male artists there is evidence that their romantic feelings included other men. And even in the early 20th century, they would have had opportunities to take part in a lively Bronzeville queer and queer-friendly nightlife.

Some artists of this generation stressed mastery of European styles and subject matter in their work. William Carter was a member of the founding generation of artists at the Center, and his work and Charles Sebree’s often featured White models, ballet dancers, harlequins, and other performers, types that were familiar from European art. Carter often depicted them with masks or veils. What might this say about themes of concealment and performance? On the other hand, Richmond Barthé’s and Ellis Wilson’s works warmly celebrate their working-class Black figures. How might we interpret the story behind Wilson’s reclining fisherman in Figure on Beach?

Nightlife, Performance, Identity

Artists connected to the South Side Community Art Center were also part of intersecting communities that found homes and modes of self-expression in different spaces in the city. The Center’s own Artists and Models Balls involved playful displays that could embrace gender performance and ambiguity, and advertisers included gay bars and bars that featured “female impersonators.” Costume sketches presented in EMERGENCE vividly reflect the dynamism of the Center’s annual ball. Bobbe Cotton’s design draws on the colorful energy of the annual New Orleans Mardi Gras festival. Cotton presents a very short black hoop skirt with colorful orbs dangling festively, a design echoed in the model’s headpiece. El Roi Parker’s design takes aesthetic inspiration from imagined scenes of Africa, referencing an extended Black-Diasporic history beyond transatlantic slavery.

The Artists and Models Balls took part in a broader South Side ball culture that included well-known drag balls, including the Halloween ball where Mikki Ferrill photographed a brief moment of flirtation between two women in 1965 in Untitled, Chicago, IL. How might we speculate about what exceeds the frame and the factors that shape this moment of intimacy, reflecting on what these women’s lives may have looked like in the 1960s? One of Ferrill’s favorite models was Terry Readus, a trans woman who designed her own costumes. Ferrill was also a regular at the Garage/Alley, a social happening on the South Side, which embraced diverse identities; as she put it, it was “all accepting—you just had to behave correctly.” Like Ferrill, Patric McCoy made many street portraits. His work depicts varying forms of style and gestures of Black men as they engage with the dynamic energy of the city and its many communities.

Famed South Side nightclubs such as the Club DeLisa became a hub for folks with expansive gender and sexual identities. Walter Sanford’s reddish-pink pencil drawing Rosebud presents a figure surrounded by a wreath-like amalgam of rose flowers and buds. Conservation recently revealed that it was fixed with hairspray—perhaps on the spot at a nightclub with a performer’s spray can—as an adhesive medium. In the 1950s Sanford regularly attended the Club DeLisa, where Allen Stringfellow’s father was the manager, and drew portraits of guests and performers, including drag performers.

While this exhibition centers on locations the artists frequented, we also consider how they imagined spaces where they could express and explore aspects of their identity and convey these concepts through their work. For instance, Charles Sebree’s Untitled (Man at a Bar) captures a Black man with button eyes drinking a cocktail in a bar. He looks at the viewer with a subtle smile as if he is trying to court us with a pleasant, welcoming glance. In his Black Music Box, Ralph Arnold orchestrated numerous collage pieces that commemorate major influences and stakeholders in twentieth-century Black-made music; among other musicians, he honors the queer practice of blueswoman Ma Rainey.

William Carter (1909–1996). Seated Girl. Oil mounted on board, 1940. 20 1/8” (H) x 15 7/8” (W). Collection of the South Side Community Art Center.  [Image: CARTER.3]

William Carter (1909–1996). Untitled (Portrait of a Woman, possibly Carmencita Romero). Oil on canvas, 1940. 20” (H) x 15 7/8” (W). Collection of the South Side Community Art Center.  [Image: CARTER.4]

Artist unknown. Poster for Artists and Models Ball. Offset lithography, 1940. 21 5/8” (H) x 14” (W). Collection of the South Side Community Art Center. [Image: POSTER.1]

El Roi Parker (1923–1978). Design for Artists and Models Ball (Africanesque). Watercolor and graphite on board, circa 1946. 15” (H) x 11” (W). Collection of the South Side Community Art Center.  [Image: PARKER.1]

Bobbe Cotton (1924?–?). Design for Artists and Models Ball (Mardi Gras). Watercolor and color pencil on paper, 1946. 15” (H) x 12” (W). Collection of the South Side Community Art Center.  [Image: COTTON.1]

Charles Sebree (1914–1985). Untitled (Man at Bar). Gouache and beeswax with pigment on paper, circa 1960. 4 3/4” (H) x 4 1/2” (W). Courtesy of Aaron Galleries, Glenview, Illinois.  [Image: SEBREE.2]

Walter Sanford (1909–1987). Rosebud. Pen and ink drawing, 1970. 14” (H) x 11” (W). Collection of the South Side Community Art Center.  [Image: SANFORD.1]

Mikki Ferrill (born 1937). Untitled (The Garage). Gelatin silver print, 1973. 14” (H) x 11” (W). Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, The Richard Florsheim Art Fund Purchase. [Image: FERRILL.1]

Mikki Ferrill (born 1937). Untitled (The Garage). Gelatin silver print, 1973. 14” (H) x 11” (W). Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, The Richard Florsheim Art Fund Purchase.[Image: FERRILL.2]

Mikki Ferrill (born 1937). Untitled, Chicago, IL. Gelatin silver print, ca. 1965; printed before 1980. 10” (H) x 8” (W) Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, the Irwin and Andra S. Press Collection Endowment Fund purchase, 2021.15. [Image: FERRILL.3]

Mikki Ferrill (born 1937). Untitled (Portrait of Terry Readus). Gelatin silver print, 1973. 10” (H) x 8” (W) Collection of the South Side Community Art Center. [Image: FERRILL.4]

Patric McCoy, Chains and Studs. 1985, digitally printed in 2022. 7” (H) x 4 5/8” (W). Collection of Patric McCoy. [Image: MCCOY.1]

Patric McCoy, Chain Cleaner. 1985, digitally printed in 2022. 7” (H) x 4 5/8” (W). Collection of Patric McCoy. [Image: MCCOY.2]

Patric McCoy, Rent Me. 1985, digitally printed in 2022. 7” (H) x 4 5/8” (W). Collection of Patric McCoy. [Image: MCCOY.3]

Patric McCoy, Faraway. 1985, digitally printed in 2022. 7” (H) x 4 5/8” (W). Collection of Patric McCoy. [Image: MCCOY.4]

Ralph Arnold (1928–2006). Black Music Box. Mixed media collages on and in an upright box. Multiple dimensions, box 24” (H) x 20” (W) x 8” (D). Collection of the South Side Community Art Center.  [Image: ARNOLD.4]

 

MIXED MEDIA AND STILL LIFE

Works in EMERGENCE are diverse in their subject matter and media, but a few themes reappear throughout. Working in abstraction or in the traditionally peaceful genre of still life, artists like William Carter, Allen Stringfellow, and Jonathan Green express themes of interiority or sociability, history or modernity. Notably, Stringfellow and Ralph Arnold both experimented with media and materials and worked extensively in collage, which allowed them to combine abstract design, figurative imagery, and on occasion political ideas.

Viewers typically expect Black artists to focus on particular aspects of their social and political identities within their work. Where might those expectations come from? Still life, abstraction, and collage may express many different things about artists’ interior lives and their visual and social observation, whether connected to public manifestations of identity or not.

William Carter’s mid-century still life Untitled presents a group of vibrantly colored bottles that invite the viewer’s gaze, set against a similarly colorful background with floral elements like grapes and leaves. They give evidence of conviviality and might be interpreted as symbols of social gatherings, but they could also just be a collection of pleasing forms. We might put Carter’s still life in dialogue with that of Jonathan Green, who became close friends with Carter while living in Chicago. Green’s close-up view of an eloquently simple composition presents oranges, a pear, and a lemon in front of two vessels. Works like this piece call the viewer to examine the objects the artist chose to include, to consider how they interact with each other like bodies in space, and to reflect on their meaning within the traditional genre of still life painting.

Collage might suggest the piecing together of identity from different components that might not usually coexist, giving room for more expansive imaginations of meaning than a straightforward representational image might allow. It could also just be an inventive way of combining colors, shapes, and textures. Allen Stringfellow’s Untitled, a collage from 1962, brings familiar motifs from still life—fruit and flowers, desserts and glassware—together with imagery of artist’s models and performers. Layered with paint and tissue paper that frustrate the viewer’s attempt to get clarity on the subject matter, the bursts of form and colors hint at the splashy abstraction of Stringfellow’s untitled, textured painting made from house paint and particulate on cardboard. Here the artist tests commonly found materials to create new textures and plays with the creation of colors and finishes that diverge from “Western” academic painting methods.

In The Waiting, Arnold constructs a large collage from different paper components, lace, and paint. In the piece, elements of European and African art are placed in dialogue with one another, while some figures appear alone and isolated, others in large groups. Without giving easy answers, Arnold implies questions about social issues. Who is waiting, and for what? In his Love Sign II, which bears the words “Love is Universal,” Arnold asserts the equal validity of all types of romantic affection and love, utilizing collage to convey a more straightforward political message.

OBLIQUE BODIES

Works in EMERGENCE take part in the long tradition of representing the human form in art, and within that tradition they represent multiple different approaches. The depiction of the body might serve to express something about an artist’s sexuality, or identity—or it might serve very different purposes. The artists in EMERGENCE have multifaceted identities, and approach their work with many different senses of the potential relationship between self and work. Some allude overtly to queer sexuality or sociability. Others express aspects of their experience obliquely, using metaphor, abstraction, and ambiguity.

Taking abstract inspiration from African forms, Jonathan Green’s Mesakin Quisar is a resplendent male nude that alludes to traditional architecture in Sudan, merging the body with the clustered forms of geometric houses. Likewise inspired by African art, Berry Horton’s large-scale untitled painting on paper morphs bodies into design elements, intermingling different scales, colors, body parts, and positive and negative space.

Other artists draw on European precedents. Richmond Barthé’s untitled painting of Saint Sebastian presents the wounded body of a Christian saint who has become a gay male icon in popular visual culture. Allen Stringfellow’s Untitled is a witty collage of classical bodies and architectures. Stringfellow presents the fragmented forms of two Greek statues that might seem to represent a male and female pair—but the artist’s vibrant background color trespasses into them, hollows them out, and fragments what might otherwise seem an idealized White heterosexual couple.

The face is sometimes seen as key to identity. Ralph Arnold, another artist who, like Stringfellow, frequently worked in collage, hides the cues we might expect to derive from the gaze of his figure in Boy with Flower. The figure’s eyes are closed, suggesting an emphasis on the sense of smell rather than sight. Juarez Hawkins’s searching Self-Portrait—in which the brilliant oil pastel colors she uses lighten the reflective mood—is complemented by her ceramic bust, Headtrip II, a figure whose stoic face, seen from the front, conceals the bevy of swirling faces—thoughts, feelings, identities, anxieties?— that compete for attention at the back of her head. To complement these two artists’ work, the exhibition also presents works by Sylvester Britton (who collaborated closely with Arnold) and Marva Jolly (whose ceramic techniques and mentorship inspired Hawkins).