Raymond Thomas, Heather Robinson, and Dayo Laoye on the steps of the South Side Community Art Center
Raymond Thomas, Heather Robinson, and Dayo Laoye on the steps of the South Side Community Art Center Credit: Alison Green

Heather Robinson has two sons—a 13-year-old and a three-year-old—who are implicated, in a way, in the South Side Community Art Center’s new show, “Maleness to Manhood.” “I’m here with two roles,” she tells me. One is as the center’s executive director. The other: “I’m here as a mother who wants my sons to be able to grow up. They have nice stuff—you know what I mean, they’re cool—but I fear for their lives. I’m hoping that this show will save them, protect them.”

“Maleness to Manhood,” which opened last Friday, features the work of 45 male artists of color. It was conceived after Trayvon Martin’s murder but before the acquittal of George Zimmerman, which came to symbolize a culture that ascribes not much value to the lives of its young black men. “Little did we know how the summer would progress,” says Raymond Thomas, who cocurated the show and has work in it, “where you had the death rate soaring, and then also the heartbreaking Trayvon Martin verdict. The urgency of it became even more palatable, for us as artists and as men to address this thing.”

The work here fuses the personal and the political, addressing racism, community violence, cultural representation, and mass incarceration. (Thomas points out something that the legal scholar Michelle Alexander found in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness: there were more black men locked up or on probation or parole in 2008 than were enslaved in 1850.) While Thomas’s contribution, for instance, includes an image of Trayvon Martin, the work of Sherman Beck considers a mainstay of the Chicago landscape: the bungalow. “People talk about, they used to sleep in the nice weather—sleep on the porch!” says Dayo Laoye, who also curated, and has art included here. “Hardly can we live that way anymore.”

The idea is twofold: both to dispel a broad negative image of African-American men—this is the more outward-facing piece, pitched to the world at large—and at the same time create pictures that are more positive. That’s directed inward, to the SSCAC’s south-side community, and it’s elaborated in programming the center has created to go along with the exhibit. There’ll be the usual artists’ talks and receptions—one on September 28 is hosted by Lee Bey. But on September 21 Robinson has also organized “pop-up art studios” throughout Bronzeville, where artists will guide community members through the creation of small murals. “It’s a creative opportunity,” she says, “but it’s also to give people an alternative image. So as they’re leaving their homes, as they’re getting on the Green Line, as they’re doing whatever they’re doing in the neighborhood, they can have an image of a black man painting, a black man making a sculpture.”

The project recalls the Wall of Respect, the famous mural that African-American artists painted in 1967 on the side of a grocery at 43rd and Langley—not far from here. Laoye draws another historical connection: “In African-American history, there’s been moments when there would be a call for visual artists to assist in enlightening the culture itself”—the Harlem Renaissance, for instance. This is one of those moments, he says. “Whereas the politicians and the church people, the clergies, and individuals are trying to help—we feel it’s our turn.”

He also mentions another historical moment which required a response, and the group that formed to articulate it: AfriCOBRA, the collective of black artists that came together in the late 60s, and which has been the subject of a retrospective this year at three south-side institutions: the Logan Center, the DuSable Museum, and here, at the SSCAC, which itself got started in the 1930s with Works Progress Administration money. It’s now a registered landmark; the walls of its Margaret Burroughs Gallery are dotted with holes from all the artists who’ve hung work here, and can’t be altered. “These holes represent a story,” Thomas says. “Every hole represents a story.”