African American Art And A Ship Of Tolerance: Highlights Of EXPO Chicago

Harpers Bazaar
Rebecca Anne Proctor

The fair returns for its eighth edition at Chicago’s Navy Pier with an increased global focus

The delicate white sails of a ship move with the wind. They are covered in colourful drawings and statements professing “peace”, “love”, and “tolerance.” Artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s The Ship of Tolerance has finally made its way to Chicago’s Navy Pier. Simultaneously showing on London’s River Thames, the boat provides a space in each city for the public to reflect and discuss themes of peace and tolerance.

The Ship of Tolerance was launched in 2011 during the Sharjah Biennial and Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, President and founding director of the Sharjah Art Foundation attended EXPO Chicago for a second time participating in the Dialogue section in a panel titled On Utopia with Emilia Kabakov.

Artist Ilya Kabakov, a main figure of the Moscow Conceptualists, began working with Emilia upon relocating to America during the late 1930s. Over the course of 30 years the Kabakovs have produced work – spanning painting to what they call “total installation” exploring universal themes such as history, memory and utopia.

As topics regarding climate change, gender and racial issues resurface with a steadfast desire for change around the globe - artwork on display at this year’s EXPO Chicago echoed the international cry for recognition of such issues. More than 135 international exhibitors representing 24 countries and 68 cities packed into the red-bricked Navy Pier hall this weekend in Chicago, this year not only serving America’s Midwest but the larger international art community.

“From the outset we have focused hard on the international programming to make sure that EXPO Chicago focused on what was happening globally,” said Tony Karman, President and Director of the fair.

“Many of the dealers have had great traction with African American and African diaspora work because there is a large collecting community that supports these genres in Chicago,” adds Karman. “This is one of the reasons why Mariane Ibrahim has opened up a space here.” Ibrahim, previously located in Chicago, inaugurated her 5,000 square-foot space in the city’s West Town neighborhood with a solo show of works by African-American photographer and filmmaker Ayana V Jackson.

“We are a very programme-driven fair,” says Stephanie Cristello, Director of EXPO Chicago. “This art fair doesn’t happen in a vacuum – you can feel it throughout the city.” An example of this would be OVERRIDE | A Billboard Project in the form of a takeover of advertising billboards around the city showing works by 13 artists, including Hayv Kahraman and Ayana V Jackson.

By the end of the fair’s preview day on Thursday, inaugural participant Hauser & Wirth, sold out its booth of 10 works of new paintings by African-American artist Lorna Simpson, each priced between $295,000 and $425,000. Sales included acquisitions by five museums, including outright or promised gifts to MCA Chicago and Indianapolis Museum of Art.

First time participant from Johannesburg, South African MOMO Gallery presented a booth of works by Sudanese Cairo-based artist Salah El Mur, selling the artist’s acrylic on canvas painting First Date (2018) to The Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum is an art museum located at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It marked the artist’s first showing in North America.

Ibrahim sold out works by emerging African American painter and newly represented artist, Jerrell Gibbs. “We have started a waiting list for his work,” stated Ibrahim. Additionally, the gallery sold Steve Mekoudja by Amoako Boafo to the Hessel Museum of Art, three works by Clotilde Jiménez, a bronze sculpture and two collages, and work by Lina Iris Viktor from her Constellation series. Viktor recently opened her solo show at London’s Autograph, Some Are Born To Endless Night – Dark Matter, on until 25 January 2020.

Another popular booth was that of the Wexler Gallery, a Philadelphia and New York-based space, which showcased works by American artist of Puerto Rican descendent Robert Lugo. A display of the American potter, social activist, and educator’s ceramic works could be seen combined with gun parts and decorated with portraits of civil rights leaders and cultural figures from Latino and black culture. “The teapot wall was made as a reaction against gun violence in Chicago,” said gallery owner Lewis Wexler. “Art saved Lugo’s life.

He grew up in a really rough neighborhood in Philadelphia. His parents pulled him off the streets and sent him to school and after taking an art class his whole life changed. He’s now the head of the ceramic department at Tyler University.” The teapots reflect the complexity of America’s shared history and its relationship with race and gun violence. The entire wall of teapots, price at around $60,000, sold to an undisclosed collector.

“There is a strong showing of American artists of colour at this year’s fair,” added Wexler. “It’s a statement of what is taking place now in the US and also of Chicago’s relationship with its African American past.”

Singing a Far Eastern tune is the work of Pakistani-born artist Anila Quayyum Agha’s intricate light installation – an edition of which has also been shown at Art Dubai over the years. Shown at the booth of Sundaram Tagore Gallery, rays of light emanated from its elaborately patterned laser-cut red frame acting, in the artist’s words, like a “shimmering mirage.”

Expo Chicago runs from 19-22 September at Navy Pier, Festival Halls A&B, 600 E

“We live at a time when all utopias have failed: communism, socialism, capitalism,” says Emilia Kabakov. “We were hoping that finally we would develop a system that makes people’s lives and situations, but it didn’t work out. Utopia itself is unattainable but what we decided we would do is go through culture – because culture is the only thing that makes us human. Communication through culture, friendship through culture and that’s what we did with The Ship of Tolerance.”