The Presidential Library Project: Black Presidential Imaginary, currently on view at Hyde Park Art Center, offers a conceptual framework through which to imagine The Obama Presidential Center, which will be built on the city’s Southside. The exhibition is part of a larger project in which guest curator, Ross Jordan, considers what it means to have a Black president and how that is represented and remembered in visual culture.
The majority of the featured artists are based in Chicago with practices that consider relevant issues of Black identity or use archival material. While some artworks include images of the Obamas, many do not, because the exhibition is about more than his presidency and legacy alone, focusing on larger issues of race and power, as well.
Because the exhibition is a precursor to The Obama Presidential Center, it includes a library of films and comic books presenting a visual history of Black presidency in American culture. Jordan presents Lamont Hamilton’s Excerpt from Five on the Black Hand Side, 2015, as the opening image. Part of a series of 120 photographs of African American Vietnam War veterans, the work comments on the history of “the dap,” a form of greeting these soldiers used as a sign of trust and solidarity. When Obama clinched the nomination in 2008, he and Michelle are known for having celebrated with this fist bump. Jordan notes that “the reaction to that moment and the media invention of ‘the Terrorist fist bump’ revealed America’s continuing bewilderment and fear of symbols of black solidarity.”
Zachary Fabri’s Aureola (Black Presidents), 2012, depicts media images of black men in power, including actors Danny Glover, Chris Rock, and Morgan Freeman. Because Fabri took the photographs on a computer screen, the reflections create a halo-like effect. The work suggests the expectations placed on our first Black president as well as commenting on how our relationships with our leaders are mediated by the mass media.
As Presidential Libraries typically contain relevant documents from the administration, the exhibition includes an archive room by Deb Sokolow. Joke Research Archive President Barack H. Obama’s Prepared Remarks White House Correspondents’ Dinners, 2009 – 2016, 2017, consists of boxes labeled with suggestions for the annual dinner event, during which presidents and politicians are known for taking jabs at themselves. While Obama attended during his presidency, current president Trump did not.
Rashayla Marie Brown’s She Stands on Her Own, But Never Alone, 2017, considers the possibility of the first Black woman president. The work combines images of women in popular culture and politics including Oprah, Shirley Chisholm, and Carol Moseley Braun, with those of her own family, creating a conglomeration of our expectations of what that person might look like. The arrangement of the framed photographs mimics the way family photos are displayed in living areas or on staircases. The frames may represent the constraints a Black woman would have to work within, based on race and gender, and also serve as a metaphor for the framing of issues by politicians.
Jordan notes that the first half of the exhibition focuses primarily on media depictions of Black men and women in power. Nate Young’s screened printed t-shirts of Obama and James Britt’s use of cigarette advertising aesthetics to depict the President are prime examples. The latter portion of the exhibition speaks more broadly to our collective thinking around issues of race as seen in Aisha Cousins’ Soulville Census, 2015, which comments on constructed racial categories.
At first glance, Shonna Pryor’s works evoke minimalist sculpture and paintings created by white men decades prior. Upon closer examination, content and messages become clearer. KALE, 2017, is a sculpture created from planter boxes. The title and source material have numerous references including food deserts of communities lacking access to healthy foods and Michelle Obama’s White House Garden. Both the garden and her Let’s Move initiative proved sources of power for the First Lady. On a more subtle level, gardens evoke nurturing, causing us to reflect on how we tend to people and communities.
Pryor’s “paintings” are in actuality vintage tablecloths, which she has rendered functionless by presenting them as stretched canvases. Her point of reference is conversations around family dinner tables, continuing the theme of nurturing. The titles, “Nothing wrong with showing those arms, they’re good arms” and “Fired up and ready to go…that’s what I say” were taken from family conversations she experienced, but could easily reference the Obama legacy.
Billy McGuinness’s contributions reference a specific event in the Obama presidency: the first sitting president to visit a Federal prison. It also comments on the larger issue of the disproportionate number of black men who are incarcerated. As Jordan notes, “you would think that a Black president would signal equality in other areas, but that’s not so.” Division II, Dorm 3, 2017, projects an image archive of art produced by inmates in Cook County Jail. Projected images, rather than original artworks, are presented because the warden has to sign off on any items going outside prison confines and thus prisoners would lose authorship and control of their work.
Interlock, 2014, lists as its materials “foot traffic on canvas.” McGuinness laid the canvas down on the walkway between the court house and jail, representing our criminal justice system. Because both works only include oblique references to the individuals who created them, we are confronted with how far away these lives are from our own.
As we transition away from the Obama years and await the opening of his Presidential Library, this exhibition offers much to consider as we reflect on his legacy and confront broader issues of race and justice.
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The Presidential Library Project: Black Presidential Imaginary runs through July 2, 2017, at the Hyde Park Art Center (5020 S. Cornell Ave). Hyde Park Art Center is free and open to the public Mon-Thurs 9am-8pm, Fri-Sat 9am-5pm, and Sun 12pm-5pm.