Lake Michigan has served as my compass since I moved to Chicago. I will never forget an old coworker telling me to remember “the lake is always east!” when I described how lost I’d get trying to find my way around the city. It took a few years for it to click, but once I made the connection between the lake and a compass in my mind, I felt like I unlocked a new relationship with Chicago. I was then able to explore freely, untethered to my Maps app, and with a new sense of direction and connection. The lake in all of its vastness connects to a great beyond. Knowing the water is shared but not duplicated; you can never see when it ends or where it connects with other bodies of water. In these ways, the lake serves as both a conduit and a guide.
In “The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born,” artist zakkiyyah najeebah dumas o’neal explores the lake as a connector for the between. With Black Chicago as the focal point, the exhibition highlights common experiences of joy, love, intimacy, and kinship across time. It features an assemblage of videos from the Chicago Film Archives as well as videos taken by the artist from various south-side vantage points along the lakefront. Curated by Sheridan Tucker Anderson at Arts + Public Life, the submersion begins prior to entering the gallery. On the large window panes of the building’s exterior are a series of archived images of Black women, some overlaid with a geometric shape filled with an image of the glistening lake. The window panes directly above and below these images are tinted green and blue, and an A-frame sign with small paper portraits of Lorraine Hansberry is planted on the ground in front of the entrance. When I made my way inside, the tinted panels facilitated an underwater atmosphere that commanded my full attention.
The sounds, colors, and visuals of the lakefront serve as the guide throughout the exhibition. There is no stopping or ending point in this space. Commissioned by Chicago Humanities Festival with Chicago Film Archives, and created in collaboration with music composer Ayana Contreras, dumas o’neal’s film to render the infinite is projected on the south wall of the gallery. I now understood the purpose of the video’s geometric water overlay to be a channel that united Black women’s histories through casual, mundane, yet enjoyable activities. The various clips, some as recent as 2018, demonstrated a connection and relationship between their stories that flowed gently through the water. These women are loving, playing, letting loose, chillin’, being. to render the infinite also includes clips from both an interview with Lorraine Hansberry and from the film A Raisin in the Sun (based on Hansberry’s play of the same name). In the same way that Hansberry sought to highlight the regularity of life’s joys, dreams, and trials, dumas o’neal’s work in “The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born” reminds us that our experiences and identities are not as distant as we may think.
The connections between each piece flowed steadily as I continued exploring dumas o’neal’s journey to and through self-realization and belonging. Perpendicular to the montage of archival and speculative footage, the continuous loop of glowing and flowing water in a video installation entitled to the east, so divine, it never entered my mind reminded me that through it all, the water still flows. Simultaneously, I was drawn to the soft sounds of waves, with subtle interruptions by the voices of Black women speaking and singing, in a piece entitled this is always. All around, the visitor is engulfed by water—by the lakefront—and is grounded and connected in this ocean of union.
Looking down, I saw another projection of to the east, so divine, it never entered my mind on the floor, while the west wall displayed various scenes of the lakefront in a grid of nine TV screens. The luminescent water, sunsets, sunrises, and lakefront landscapes with glimpses of cars bustling down Lake Shore Drive brought me back to my first experiences on the lake, the joy, and connectedness I felt within myself.
zakkiyyah najeebah dumas o’neal’s work is an invitation to wade in an understanding of the world where we’re each propelled by a desire for connectivity. In “The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born,” water is the Spirit that connects us to ourselves, to a virtual sense of knowing and remembering, and to one another. The water is tangible, and it is always within reach.
“The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born”
Through 5/15: Thu-Fri 2-7 PM, Sat 1-5 PM, Arts + Public Life, 301 E. Garfield, artsandpubliclife.org/exhibitions
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