Kai Perry Parker, a History PhD candidate, collaborated on an exhibition at the Smart Museum of Art, The Time Is Now! Art Worlds of Chicago's South Side, 1960–1980, and the public history projects connected to it. This major exhibit showcases Black artists and musicians whose work addresses civil rights, the Black Power and Black Arts Moments, and the politics of family and gender relations during a turbulent time in American history. Their urgent messages continue to echo down to our own day.
Gerald Williams, Messages, 1970. Acrylic on canvas. Smart Museum of Art, 2017.8
Parker participated in three aspects of the exhibition. He cowrote the liner notes for The Alley LP—the recollections of participants in the Sunday gatherings of DJs, jazz musicians, poets, muralists, and the community who met in the alley between Champlain and Saint Lawrence Avenues (near 50th Street) for nearly thirty years.
The Alley LP, cover design by Sandra Swift, from an original painting by Marcus Sterling Alleyne.
Parker also mentored four Smart Museum docents who are 2017 Harlan Community Academy graduates and alumni of the Sojourner Scholars. Sponsored by Illinois Humanities, Sojourner Scholars are public high school students from the South Side; they participate in an intensive summer institute at the Smart and take college-level arts and humanities courses. The docents interviewed Alley participants and created the interactive listening room in the heart of show. The liner notes indicate that the docents "engaged questions about the relationship between art, politics, and pleasure; the struggle for Black autonomous space; interactions between musical and visual arts; [and] the role of art in everyday life and in building community." They gathered over nine hours of recording (now archived at the Smart) and gained an appreciation from their elders of the issues that "resonate (or are in tension) with their experiences of living in Chicago today." The docents are Nyla Evans Conway, Devell Jordan, Ariana Strong, and Sandra Swift.
The listening room section of The Time Is Now! exhibition.
Finally, Parker participated in the symposium "Unfinished Business! The South Side and Chicago Art." Referencing Richard Wright and his interest in sociology, Parker told the audience that Chicago is a "known city" of statistics, but The Alley LP helps us understand the city in nuanced ways: "You can't know Chicago only from news reports ... and presidential candidates,” Parker said. Wright, the author of Native Son (Harper, 1940), coincidentally lived at 4804 S. St. Lawrence Avenue two decades before the Alley scene blossomed. See Richard Wright: A Documented Chronology, 1908–1960 (McFarland, 2014), 43.
Yaoundé Olu, Mother of Worlds, 1975. Pen & ink on illustration board. Smart Museum of Art, 2018.1
Curated by Rebecca Zorach, PhD '99 (Art History), and five years in the making, The Time Is Now! closes on December 30, 2018. Favorable reviews include the New York Times.
By Joanne M. Berens, MFA '93, jberens at uchicago dot edu.