New Smart Museum exhibition examines Black artists’ ideas of respite

A still from Ja’Tovia Gary’s 2017 “Giverny I (Négresse Impériale),” Video, 06:18. (Courtesy the artist and galerie frank elbaz)

Staff writer

“Down Time: On the Art of Retreat” has opened at the Smart Museum of Art, examining how predominantly African American artists have conceptualized spaces of rest and respite through a show curated by 13 undergraduate and graduate University of Chicago students.

“This is an exhibition that grew out of a class this spring … called ‘Exhibition in Practice,’” said art history professor Leslie Wilson, who oversaw the project. “I divided the class into four groups at the beginning, and they each needed to make a proposal. They were thinking a lot with our permanent collection here.”

The students presented and worked through the proposals, attempting to find points of connection between them.

“That was the genesis for this particular show that focuses on the theme of retreat,” Wilson said. “At the core of this show is definitely how we can take time and space away from our everyday lives as well as extreme events, to kind of take care of ourselves.”

“Down Time” is grounded in the time-and-space concepts of here, elsewhere and beyond: “How we might be able to make retreat in places that are very close to us in our everyday lives and in things we pursue like vacation and other forms of travel,” Wilson said, “and then works that take us all the way into our imaginations.”

Artist Faith Ringgold’s painted quilt hangs prominently on one wall, in which an imagined Black woman pursues a creative life in France — as did figures such as Josephine Baker, James Baldwin and Nina Simone, who found more welcome there than they did in the United States.

The quilt collapses time and space: Ringold’s artist is joined by Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and Mary McLeod Bethune who sit together amid sunflowers as Vincent van Gogh looks on beside them.

“It’s still an idealized world — it’s a France that really didn’t quite exist — but it’s one that many in the artists in the show, from Loïs Mailou Jones to Romare Bearden to Faith Ringgold to Ming Smith, had,” Wilson explained. “One of the things we’re actually trying to unpack a little bit around this was the ways in which African American artists were having a quite-distinct experience, where if you were a French colonial subject, you might actually have a more tense relationship to the metropole.”

Derrick Woods-Morrow, a North Carolina-born artist who works in Chicago, has three pieces in the show, two of which employ a reimagined “toile de Jouy” pattern of repeated idyllic, pastoral images on fabric.

“An idyllic truth to romanticize would be Black leisure,” he explained. The pattern comes from archived Jim Crow imagery, but the images he used as subject matter illustrations “do not directly show images of disenfranchised or enslaved Black folks or people who are suffering because of redlining and the way institutional racism continues to happen post-slavery.”

“Instead, throughout that same period of Jim Crow, I found images of Black people resting on beaches, Black people swimming, Black people sitting in parks and having picnics — happening exactly at the same times as the horrible atrocities we all should already know about, doing so, to show that these things were always deserved of Black people and in the future should be: just the ability to rest,” he said.

He said his work “particularly is looking at Black and queer bodies in spaces that they were allowed and not allowed to have retreat” — contemporary photographs of Southern Black queer people at rest hang within the toile frames.

“Down Time,” which runs through Dec. 15, is the first show of its kind at the Smart Museum, 5550 S. Greenwood Ave. It was put on by the 2018-established Feitler Center for Academic Inquiry, which was named in recognition of a $5 million gift from Joan and Robert Feitler to support developing curricular exhibitions through teaching and other student opportunities.

“Elevating student voices and student work in this way is something that we’re really excited, as an academic museum, to do,” said Assistant Curator of Academic Initiatives Berit Ness, who oversaw the project with Wilson.

Megan Carnrite, a student who took the class and helped curate the show, said, “It just felt nice as a student for our opinions and input to be valued. It felt like our contribution to the programming and the exhibition was significant, and we weren’t placated in our opinion-sharing. It felt sincere and genuine to be valuable contributors of the visitors and the crafters of the exhibition.”