The exhibit Recess, curated by Tempestt Hazel, was at the South Side Community Art Center (SSCAC) at 3831 S. Michigan Ave., from October 11 through November 9, 2013. It included the work of contemporary artists as well as artists from the permanent collection of the SSCAC. AREA Chicago had an extended email discussion with Tempestt Hazel about the show. The excerpts included here describe how Tempestt’s response to paintings from the SSCAC permanent collection depicting childhood from earlier generations led to a rethinking of the importance of play and imagination for African-American art today.
The idea for Recess originally sparked from my familiarity with the South Side Community Art Center, its history and the fact that it has a permanent collection . . . a collection that is housed in and a testament to the cultural history of the neighborhood that has been my only home since I moved to Chicago. For months I combed through every single piece in the collection. Honestly, I reached a bit of a block after a while. The collection can be electrifying, debilitating and poignant all at the same time. Then when you consider the larger social and art historical context that it was created alongside, the gravity of it all becomes pretty intense. I started pulling the pieces I responded the most to, which were often the pieces that I found to be unexpected. The first ones I pulled were “Ghetto Boy” by Ben Bey and “Cat’s Cradle” by Al Price. With both of these paintings there was something unsettling, imaginative and nostalgic about them and that strange mix of feelings stuck with me. There was something that transported me back to my own childhood and imagined childhoods of family, friends and strangers that I could never really know. I think the sense of nostalgia that I felt when looking at pieces was triggered by different relationships I’ve had with histories—my relationship with my parents and the history that I’ve learned through their stories and photographs, also my relationship to history and popular culture that comes by way of the kind of work that I do, primarily with contemporary artists, archives and ephemera. And then my own experience has filled in the gaps.
That was the seed and the show grew from that point. When I made it to a dozen or so pieces and started getting an idea of the other artists I wanted to bring in, I started to realize that the show isn’t simply about play and imagination. It’s also about allowing ourselves the space and permission for that youthful, limitless spirit. When I say ourselves, I don’t just mean people, I also mean institutions—particularly culturally specific spaces. Recess started to become a show that asked us to re-imagine what exhibitions at a Black art center could be. Must they always have the weight of struggle and strife, which is only part of our history? Or can they offer us a way to expand on what tends to be a one-dimensional and diluted view of the Black experience? Play and imagination served as the entry points into a larger conversation about the limitations we put on ourselves as individuals and in the cultural work that we do.
Just to clarify, I don’t think that we should ever forget the struggle or ignore history. Histories and legacies are undeniably important to keep in mind with everything we do as artists, organizers, scholars, etc. But what I am suggesting is that despite how ubiquitous struggle seems to be in Black communities and history, it is not the only story that we have. Instead of our cultural production always being a very didactic lesson in the struggles and obstacles of a people, we must take the time to tell other stories.
This way we have examples that illustrate our full humanity. Yes, we have struggled. But we have also loved. We have also forgiven. We have also played. We also imagine and fantasize. We daydream. We build. We shape shift. And our institutions should allow space to illustrate those things in addition to the strife we’ve had to overcome. One of my favorite James Baldwin quotes is, “I am what time, circumstance, and history have made of me, certainly, but I am also much more than that. So are we all.” I think this perfectly articulates my point.
What I was thinking about when I came up with the title Recess was several different things. First, I wanted this to be an opportunity for an exhibition at a historically Black institution to not be about a limited, often seen view of Blackness. I was hoping it would be a momentary break from that. I wanted it to be a space that offers the things you don’t usually see portrayed when going to an exhibition at a historically African-American space like the South Side Community Art Center. I wanted it to be a bit of relief from that. Also, in all honesty, it was partially a response to the exhibition that was up before Recess. It was incredible, but extremely heavy.
Then, I was thinking about imagination and unlocking that, which calls for a dig into the depths of our mind. The recesses. Expectations or pressures are often what keep me from being able to tap into that. To release limitations. Get weird, get crazy and get strange. Ultimately the title was me thinking to myself, “Let’s have recess so that we can tap into our recesses . . .” It’s kind of silly, but I think I/we all need that from time to time. Re-imagine, rethink and shake off the things that are keeping us from moving forward and experimenting.
My intentions with Recess were to say something about how locking ourselves into a one-dimensional understanding of what artists make, where they make it and what it speaks to is oppressive—not only for the artist but also for the viewer. Playfulness, imagination, the ability to daydream—these are activities that promote mental freedom.