By MRINALINI PANDEY
As the inaugural Black Fine Arts Month drew to a close at the DuSable Museum of African American History, a lively audience gathered to reminisce during a “Salon Talk” about the legacy of the museum’s founder, Margaret Taylor-Burroughs.
The Salon Talks were a series of weekly gatherings hosted by Pigment Intl. throughout the month, when numerous historians, artists, educators, and journalists were invited to discuss the history of Black fine arts in Chicago.
Artist Dana Todd Pope moderated the Oct. 24 discussion with painter and educator Dorian Sylvain, painter and sculptor Debra Hand, and South-African artist and educator Soraya Sheppard to explain the legacy of Margaret Burroughs and the ways the newer generation can be the torchbearers of her legacy and creators of their own.
Burroughs was a writer, poet, visual artist, educator, and an arts organizer. In 1961, she and her husband created the Ebony Museum of Negro History and Art in the living room of their home in Bronzeville. The museum evolved into the DuSable Museum and moved to its current location at 740 E 56th Place in 1973. Today, it is the oldest independent museum in the country that grew out of the indigenous black community and represents black culture.
Burroughs had a long career as a teacher, a visual artist and a printmaker, but she made unparalleled contributions in showcasing the works of other African American artists.
Panel member Hand who was discovered as an artist by Burroughs. Hand recalled that she had known Burroughs as a little girl when the museum was in her home, and Hand often accompanied her mother, who was Burroughs’ student at the time, to her house.
Sylvain, who primarily considers herself a painter, described the evolution of her career first designing scenery for theaters to now being invested in public art. She devoted her painting skills to design and public sphere, doing multi-media projects throughout the city. She has done a tunnel mural about the Great Migration at the Dyett High School and is currently working on an exterior mural at Mariano’s on 39th Street and Martin Luther King Drive.
As an educator, she loves working with children and encourages collaboration and cross pollination in art. As an example, Sylvain created a mural with children at the Experimental Station titled “Exploding Bike Shop.” Another mural exhibit that Sylvain did as a part of “art intervention” can be seen at the old South Shore Bank on 71st Street and Jeffrey Boulevard to beautify the corner that had deteriorated since the bank’s closure.
Sylvain described Burroughs as an integral part of the landscape that influenced her as an artist. She said the South Side was the epicenter of all her learning as an artist. Growing up in a vibrant art scene and the cultural environment of the ‘60s and ‘70s, Sylvain drew great inspiration from the collective energy and planning of Burroughs and her contemporaries who were driven to make things happen despite a dearth of political power. Sylvain described Burroughs as “very accessible, always friendly, always talkative, and always wanting to know what you are up to?” adding, “she wanted people to approach living with a purpose and not just selfish gratification, but what are you doing for the community. It always had to be in the context of ‘we.’” This deep sense of connection of history about the people and their identity is the vital takeaway from Burroughs that Sylvain takes inspiration from and strives to achieve in her own commitment to children, teaching, and bringing art to the public.
Sheppard, a South-African artist living in Chicago who describes herself as the “product of apartheid,” came to America on a self-imposed exile. Reflecting on her life at the time of apartheid in South Africa, Sheppard noted the stark similarities in the aftermath of apartheid in South Africa to the rippling effects slavery had on Black people in America. She believes that there is an identity crisis because of the degradation and indignation that people affected by apartheid and slavery have suffered for generations and that they continue to carry the baggage of labels given to them by the system.
Sheppard said that this baggage plus a lack of resources is a significant problem for most artists of color, who feel driven to produce art that white gallerists will like rather than what they want to produce. To overcome this, Sheppard insists it is important to create more platforms that represent artists of color. “We own what we create, and we are in spaces that were not there for us before,” she said. Sheppard currently runs a Chicago based non-profit organization called Color Me Africa Fine Arts to help exhibit the works of South African artists in America and back home.
One lingering theme that emerged from the discussion was the challenges faced by artists of color in claiming an artistic space for themselves and their work. What can black artists do to engage black collectors to invest in just collecting art to tell the stories of black people and not compete with white benefactors after they promote a certain artist or a kind of artwork? When the moderator posed this question to the panelists, there were a range of reflections that came out of the discussion.
Hand replied that there is more than one art world.
There are collectors who collect art for the love of it, she said. They care for the stories and, at times, bring their own stories with the art. Then there are collectors who operate like stock markets: They invest in art only to build “brands” that eventually reap more profits from the brand-building endeavor.
Hand said artists should ask themselves which of these worlds they wish to belong – “high stakes game or love of art?”