5 Evolutionary Black Chicago Artists

5 Evolutionary Black Chicago Artists

Written by:
Keith Contorno
Mar 30, 2020

Contemporary art challenges traditional notions of art, but it also relies on what comes before it. In this way, there is always a conversation between the new and the old, and the groundwork artistic predecessors laid out has a great deal to do with today’s artistic creations. 

It is not a surprise, then, that Chicago is still a hotspot for art considering the artistic movements cultivated in the city. And those movements can be traced back to certain Black artists who pioneered mediums and built the Midwestern city’s reputation. 

These evolutionary local artists succeeded in making discoveries, pushing boundaries, building communities, unearthing lives, and sharing sensations. But they didn’t just rock the Regal Theater and hearten Bronzeville homes. They committed to, or continue to commit to, fostering a culture of art in Chicago, igniting artists today, like Eve L. Ewing and Chance the Rapper. 

As Chicago artists, our conceptions enjoy their company. As current artists, our work speaks with theirs. As people, they erect our world.

1. William Edouard Scott

In early twentieth-century Chicago, Scott was determined to paint Black Americans outside of laborer or enslaved settings. As a result, he became the first Black muralist of the 20th century, and he did much to kick-off the New Negro movement. 

He painted roughly seventy-five murals, twenty-five in Chicago. His work adorned places across the city, such as the Wabash YMCA, Lane Tech High School, Shoop Elementary, the Davis Square field house, Pilgrim Baptist Church, and the Chicago Coliseum. He was also an overseer of Chicago’s South Side Community Art Center, which was a locus of Black art and politics in the 1940s.

Scott trained in tradition at the Art Institute of Chicago and in Paris. His skill and talent defied racialized beliefs that expelled Black aesthetic sensibility and intellectual capability. He used that talent as a powerful source for social justice, contributing to a cultural tradition of subverting people’s perceptions of Blackness through art and making a mark by finding a new way to do it.

2. Muddy Waters

Waters was a founding father of the blues. What that means is that his work cascaded through the next one hundred years of music and created genres. The story goes that the audience during his performances were so loud that they drowned out his acoustic guitar, prompting his introduction to the electric guitar. From there, Waters pioneered the electric power of the blues that eventually would become a blueprint for white rock artists of the ensuing decades, like John Mayall, Jimmy Page, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Van Morrison, and Eric Clapton.

Waters made Chicago a marker of musical heritage. However, up until 2019, with the advent of the Chicago Blues Museum, one would have a difficult time finding where exactly that physical marker exists. Many locations associated with Waters and the blues foundation have been lost. The reason for that, says sociologist Janice Monti, has much to do with “our racial blinders because this is Black music and Black people and we’re not nearly as interested in it as other things.” It can be surprising that it is such a challenge to preserve the archives of such monumental achievements. Why that is remains something that Chicago must come to terms with. Many can feign to name someone who did more for our culture of artistic creation than Muddy Waters. It means a great deal to Chicagoans and people throughout the world to remember him.

3. Gwendolyn Brooks

Brooks grew up in Chicago, and her collection of poetry titled, A Street In Bronzeville (1945), shared the love and difficulty of her neighborhood. Her poetry reflected the lives of poor Black people in the city and in particular, young girls. She was recognized for her poetic voice and won a Pulitzer Prize with her book Annie Allen (1949), “which follows the experiences of a Black girl as she grows into adulthood.”

Often remembered for her form, Black Chicagoans celebrate Brooks for her radical legacy. In combination with her dedication to encourage young poets through teaching and advocating, her radicalism inspired some of today’s poets, including Eve L. Ewing, Nate Marshall, Kanye West, and Chance the Rapper.  

4. Herbie Hancock

Born in Chicago, Hancock was playing music at a young age when he was discovered as having considerable talent. He played Mozart’s D Major Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra when he was only eleven years old. 

In the tradition of local musicians, Hancock became an influential jazz pianist, playing with legends like Coleman Hawkins and trumpeter Donald Byrd, until he was handpicked by Miles Davis to join his quintet. Eventually, Hancock formed his own quartet and launched the album Head Hunters, creating a defining moment of modern jazz. The lasting jazz scene in Chicago owes much to Hanock’s achievements, and he continues to support young musicians through organizations like the Thelonious Monk Institute Of Jazz and Baycat.

5. Kerry James Marshall

Marshall is one of the foremost Chicago painters, who has devoted his craft toward portraying an unapologetic Black beauty and exposing the needless, negative implications of darkness. Marshall has focused exclusively on Black subjects, and his figures are painted with an unambiguously dark skin tone.

Besides being displayed in locations like the Chicago Public Library and the Chicago Convention Center, which has resulted in recent incidents of social-political strife, Marshall’s work has been exhibited in the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Contemporary Art. He also has taught at the Univesity of Illinois at Chicago.

What Marshall gives most to Chicago is his constant example for artists and our cultural institutions about how to interrogate conventions. He says, “If you really want to be competitive, it’s not about trying to match and meet all of the requirements of the mainstream as it already is constituted; it’s to try to figure out how to do something that the mainstream refuses to address but to do it in a way that causes them to have to come to terms with it.”

Written by:
Keith Contorno
Mar 30, 2020

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