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The Balm: Art for Black Women’s Wellness


The Southside Community Art Center is proud to host a group exhibition that exclusively highlights Black women artists, and there’s never been a more pertinent time to do so.

The Balm: Art for Black Women’s Wellness emerged as a collective artists’ action. Eight women who engage the time-honored tradition of using their artistic practice to give vision and form to our healing have contributed work across a variety of media and points of view. Themes emerged organically, with works that stand in both testimony and conversation. Together, they frame inquiry into the experiences of psychological fragmentation, the sustaining value of breathwork, cultural healing practices of the African Diaspora and healthcare disparities affecting maternal fetal outcomes. Themes of kinship and the restorative powers of the familiar, coalesce around memory of home, especially the south, which weaves its way through many of the works presented and finds its way to us here in Chicago. The alchemy of this project—bringing together artists and communities around a subject that concerns us all—demonstrates the power of Black women’s creative ingenuity. 

Organized by visual artist and culture worker Kyrin Hobson, the exhibition will showcase artists based in and outside of Chicago, which include Hobson, Alexandria Valentine, Venise Keys, Jasmine Best, Brie Ortega, Janelle Dunlap, and Ashley January.

The exhibition opens for public viewing October 8th, in addition to an opening reception October 22nd, 6-8pm. RSVP here

Learn more about the participating artists below: 


Jasmine Best

Jasmine Best is a true Southern Artist, gathering narratives from her Carolinian family and childhood. The North Carolina based artist uses her personal memories and manipulations of her memories to create dialogues about the black female identity in the south and in predominantly white spaces. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Recently was awarded the Artwork Archive Art Business Grant. She works with tangible and traditional mediums combined with digital means of art making. Her work often depicts maternal figures, each depicting the diversity and qualities that make up the black southern women in her life through several generations.



Janelle Dunlap

Janelle is a Charlotte, NC and Chicago based social practice artist, curator and creative consultant who works to generate intentional and transformational change through her practice. She has a ten year background as a nonprofit professional where she worked in several roles that continue to inform and fuel her creative roles.

Janelle’s broad body of work ranges from micro museum exhibitions to performance art installations and continues to generate institutional and community based funding. Some of her previous funders include Art  Science Council, the Knight Foundation, The Institute for Museum and Library Services, Z Smith Reynolds Foundation, and the Sweet Water Foundation in Chicago, IL. She is currently a 2020 recipient of the New Artist Society Scholarship through the Low- Residency MFA program at School of the Art Institute of Chicago and also a current student in the inaugural class of Social and Environmental Arts MFA program at Prescott College. 

Beekeeping is a meditation on collective effort for survival. Through the use of abstraction, I use the medium of encaustic paint to articulate what is incommunicable between myself and the bees. This co-species relationship seeks wisdom beyond the anthropocene and gains knowledge through observation, care, and engagement with the honeybee. The west African goddess Oxum, is known for her healing powers that transmute pain into honey for her devotees. As one of Oxum’s totems, the bee is a sacred symbol of the healing power 



Alexandria Valentine

Alexandria Valentine (b. on the South Side of Chicago, in 1996) uses archival practices, writing, collage, photography and textiles to explore themes of Black latent thought, ancestral landscapes, and the Black Romantic. Informed by the legacy of her loved ones who lived in and traveled from the South during the Great Migration, Valentine seeks to explore the past, create pathways to the future and peer at the spaces in between. 

Alexandria received a Master of Fine Arts in Fiction from Columbia University School of the Arts and a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. They are the co-founder of North Star Memory Project, a transmedia archive that prioritizes Black Chicago and Great Migration histories through counter-archive building. 

My art investigates the liminal spaces of Black women’s wellness–what happens when we cease to be well and the process of trying to make our way back to wellness. Being Black and woman means that there are many people and structures actively trying to limit our wellness, my work explores the effects of that and the way we act upon those forces in return. 



Ashley January 

Ashley focuses on contemporary portraiture informed by her maternal experience. Due to pregnancy complications that led to her son being born premature, her new body of work addresses the crisis of the Black maternal mortality rate in America. This year Ashley has exhibited work with Dominique Gallery on Artsy, and with SoLA Contemporary in LA in 2020. Her work has been exhibited in numerous venues including, the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, IL; Viridian Artists Inc, New York, NY; Laguna Art Museum, Laguna Beach, CA; Pacific Art Foundation, Newport Beach, CA; and the Irvine Fine Arts Center, Irvine, CA. She was selected as a first-place award winner at the Woman Made Gallery’s Midwest Open in Chicago, in 2018 and won the Beverly Bank Best of Show Award at the Beverly Arts Center’s juried competition in 2017. 

Ashley earned her MFA in Painting from Laguna College of Art and Design, Laguna Beach, CA and her BS in Communication with an Advertising concentration and Minor in Studio Art from Bradley University, Peoria, IL. She lives in Chicago with her husband, son, dog, and works from her studio at Mana Contemporary.

I address the growing crisis of the Black maternal mortality and morbidity rate in America through painting and multimedia. Black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women. Motherhood, for Black women, is not detached from the state of being “Black” in the United States. For us, the decision to enter motherhood involves considerable risk, personal identity, healthcare disparities, burden-bearing and survival. My first pregnancy abruptly ended with a traumatic delivery. I was diagnosed with preeclampsia at 32 weeks and 4 days. Two days later, I delivered by emergency c-section. My baby boy was born prematurely with a low birth weight of 2 pounds and 13 ounces. Mothers who have suffered similar complications that lead to more adverse birth outcomes are considered to be a “near miss” meaning that they suffered severe maternal morbidity (SMM) in which Black women are disproportionately affected.  

While uplifting Black mothers and children, the images and sound narratives serve as a call to action for more awareness, research, and eradication of unnecessary maternal and infant death in the United States of America.



Kyrin Hobson

Kyrin Hobson is a visual artist and independent arts professional dedicated to creating understanding and opportunity among diverse cultures. Her distinctive approach to art making and her commitment to building connections for institutions, audiences and artists define a multifaceted career. Studio work and research interests engage Hobson’s role as a cultural signifier and pragmatic change agent. Hobson’s artistic practice includes narrative figurative painting, portraiture, drawing and mixed-media installations. Multi-layered works fuse autobiography with myth and care giving traditions of New Orleans, Haiti and the Black Diaspora. Finding Guinen is a current body of work that interrogates the racial imaginary with regard to the wholeness and histories of women of African ancestry in the Americas.

Hobson is a 2023 MFA candidate at University of Chicago, in addition she holds a Master of Arts degree in Arts Administration and Museum Studies from New York University and a Bachelor of Arts in Studio Art from UCLA.

These works are part of a series considering Black women’s health and wholeness through the lens of history. I use the body as a symbol of collective experience and hope for reconciliation. Fecundity Trick Card, We Spoke of Vessels and No. Money Man. engage imagery of the  body and specifically the uterus to explore how we have maintained our wholeness during times when our reproduction has been hijacked and tied to commerce. Bearing witness to our physical legacies of fecundity, commodification and survival is important in the here and now as we cope with threats to reproductive rights, disparities in women’s healthcare and maternal fetal outcomes, and the scourge of human trafficking.



Venise Keys 

Venise Keys is a visual artist, writer, and educator raised on the South Side of Chicago, Illinois. Venise’s art has been exhibited at Front Room Gallery in Brooklyn, NY as well as the Museum Science and Industry, Plus Gallery, Woman Made Gallery, and Intersect Chicago (formally known as SOFA: Sculpture, Objects, and Functional Art & Design Fair) in Chicago.

She has a Bachelors and Master’s degree in Painting with a Certificate in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies for her research on Black Feminist politics. She served as adjunct faculty of art for Illinois Central College, Bradley University, and has lectured at Dillard University on the role of the Black artist. This work is published in the scholarly journal, Kalfou: Comparative and Relational Ethnic Studies.

This year, Venise’s writing on art education has circulated to Norway, and she is recently published in a New York arts and culture magazine, Hyperallergic. Venise is currently a visual art teacher at Art In Motion Creative Arts School and is the program director for the Kappa Chapter of Gamma Xi Phi.

The visual aesthetics and rituals of my studio practice explore personal intersections of race, gender, sexuality, age, and class. I use painting, drawing, craftwork, paper cutting, and found objects to explore art history, popular culture, and my childhood memories. Common themes in my artwork are queerness, generational trauma, the Black Arts Movement, intersectionality, Black feminist theory, rootwork spirituality, identity politics, and empowerment.



Brie Ortega 

Brie Ortega is a photographer, digital artist, non-profit do-gooder, and social worker interested in how art can draw attention to health issues and potential solutions, particularly in Black communities. Her work is informed by navigating complex personal and familial health landscapes involving mental illness, traumatic birth, migration, metabolic dysfunction, breathing trouble, abuse, and neglect. Much of her life has been an experiment in healing from these contexts and reclaiming the health and happiness she believes is our birthright. While Brie has oscillated between California and Atlanta throughout her life, her mother is originally from Chicago, where Brie was last present as a toddler in foster care. Participating in The Balm represents a positive and poetic return to a familial place of origin.

Brie is currently living as nomadically as possible after spending 11 years in Los Angeles, where she was inspired to develop an art practice and also rebel against dominant notions of what it means to be an artist and to create in the social media era. It is important for her to use art as a tool for activism and therapy while disrupting the false dichotomy between artist and “non-artist.”

These portraits were created in 2019 as part of a small community effort with friends Krissy Leahy and Monique Hall called The Black Breath Project. In collaboration with members of the Los Angeles Black yoga and wellness community, we developed a zine called Breathing While Black in which participants submitted portraits or had their portraits made by me while engaged in mindful breathing practice. The focus on breath was inspired by its importance as a taken-for-granted yet integral part of life; the way breath can be interrupted by anxiety, respiratory illnesses, and pollution; the attention to breath given by yoga and meditation practices; and Eric Garner’s immortal last words. Accompanying the portraits are “breath testimonials.”

The time during which I created these portraits is very meaningful. I was on a partial sabbatical and really pouring resources into my own health. For the first time, I was managing depression and anxiety through nutrition and without medication. After a string of unhealthy relationships, I was being extra intentional about seeking people out who treated me with kindness and respect. And, of course, this was shortly before COVID put the act of breathing front and center on the world stage. In many ways, these portraits are an ode to that time of discovery.


*top image credit: Alexandria Valentine. A Cosmic Anger, A Cosmic Rage. Mixed media collage. 2021


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.