The Black Creativity Innovation Studio Credit: Arionne Nettles

Little superheroes dashed out of the Black Creativity Innovation Studio and through the Museum of Science and Industry on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, their capes blowing and badges glowing. On this museum family day, the studio was set up just for them. First they picked their superpowers, determined their origin stories, and chose an identity. And then, of course, next up was building their gear.

The “Hero Lab” was a collaboration with Jason Mayden, CEO and cofounder of the children’s shoe company Super Heroic and one of this year’s honored Black Creativity innovators. He says he designed the activity to give kids a positive experience that lasts beyond the fun of the day—he wants kids to know their own abilities.

“A lot of kids who are coming here, they feel joy for a moment, but we want them to go home and have that joy be present in their everyday lives, so we wanted to give them something—an artifact of their heroism and their brilliance,” Mayden says. “By them constructing their own cape, picking their superpowers, it gives them agency and we give them labels that help them be biased towards positive outcomes.”

Every year, MSI’s Black Creativity program creates experiences like the Hero Lab to expose youth to careers and opportunities in creative and STEM fields. Mayden, a former designer for Nike and the Jordan brand, is a native south-sider and sees the opportunity to participate in Black Creativity as a way to fill the void left by the lack of representation in these fields.

“By me being myself in these environments, it gives people permission to be themselves, and I think authenticity and access to authentic people is lacking in our community because we often are told we have to switch our behaviors, switch our style of speech or dress in order to be deemed as innovative or deemed as intelligent,” Mayden says. “But I think I’ve lived the life and have a career that reflects my true self. And if we can have kids feel like being who they are is enough, then that’s a blessing.”

MLK Day was the official kickoff of Black Creativity. Since 1970, the exhibit has drawn crowds to the museum to celebrate the culture, heritage, and contributions of African Americans in art and innovation. This year’s list of exhibits includes a timeline of that 50-year history, the Innovation Studio, and the “Juried Art Exhibition,” the longest-running exhibit of African-American art in the country.

Black Creativity started as the Black Esthetics arts and culture festival with a focus on emerging artists and performances in theater, dance, and music. Publisher John H. Sengstacke, photographer Robert (Bobby) A. Sengstacke, fine arts editor Earl Calloway—all of the Chicago Defender—along with history professor and MSI trustee John Hope Franklin and South Side Community Art Center members such as artist Douglas R. Williams were influential in its creation. “Queen of Gospel” Mahalia Jackson performed at the inaugural event.

In 1984 the museum worked with the Chicago Defender and added science, technology, and history into the exhibition and changed its name to Black Creativity. It added a fundraising gala, supported by Johnson Publishing Company founders Eunice and John Johnson, which was attended by Oprah.

And in 1988, MSI featured 100 Black scientists, engineers, and inventors in “Black Achievers in Science,” the museum’s first large-scale exhibition.

“We added science and technology, but always kept the art,” says Angela Williams, deputy creative director at MSI. “And really, in a way, we were ahead of the curve in terms of a larger global thinking. Now, STEAM [science, technology, engineering, art, and math] is part of educational thinking in terms of what students need to be looking at towards the future.”

Williams took the lead on the “Black Creativity: 50 Years” exhibit, and says one of her favorite highlights was a 2007 exhibit called “Design for Life” that featured industrial designer Charles Harrison. Harrison was the chief of design at Sears, Roebuck and Company—the company’s first Black executive—and was responsible for redesigning the 3-D View-Master.

“He spent many, many years at Sears and lived right here in Chicago,” Williams says. “The bios [in the exhibit] are really hyperfocused on Chicago stories, and he’s one of those stories.”

Since its inception, Black Creativity has continued to champion established Black artists and innovators while launching the careers of those who are emerging. Artists such as Hebru Brantley, Harmonia Rosales, Theaster Gates, and Amanda Williams were featured in Black Creativity before their rise to wide acclaim. This year more than 200 works are displayed.

Blake Lenoir, an artist and cultural activist, has artwork featured for the first time this year. Lenoir, 28, says he was first exposed to art in museums during a visit to MSI and as a preteen worked there as a volunteer in the creative studio. Now, his mixed-media piece Opaque Metropolis sits on the same walls that would steal his attention.

“Just to be in that space and to see people’s reaction to my work, being from the south side and being able to represent my age group [shows] it’s attainable, and we can do things that are pretty great right now,” Lenoir says.

This year marks multidisciplinary artist Rory Scott’s third year participating in the exhibit. Her work often deals with space and time, so being part of the 50th anniversary exhibit has special meaning for her.

“I’m obsessed with time so it’s a big deal,” Scott says. “It means a lot to be a part of something that has been in existence and cultivated to thrive after all this time. I am incredibly happy and grateful that I get to celebrate and participate in this historic milestone show.”

In addition to works of art by professional artists, the Black Creativity program has extended its focus in recent years to specifically highlight the work of high school student artists. Last year it created a dedicated space for work in the youth category, and this year it modified its submission process to encourage entries from more students—in 2020, the youth exhibition is the largest it’s ever been.

Located upstairs with the Black Creativity logo projected on the wall of the stairwell, the exhibition’s youth gallery feels uniquely fresh and filled with cultural references. There are images of Black life, both current and historical, that line the dark gray walls.

Kenwood Academy High School’s Arthur Roby, whose portrait of rapper Young Thug earned him first place in the 2019 youth category, has portraits of two more rappers in this year’s exhibit— Lil Baby and the late Nipsey Hussle—along with a portrait titled MLK Smile, which on opening day prompted a group of captivated kids to yell to their parents, “Hey, that’s Martin Luther King!”

Mackinzie Obamedo is a student at Walter H. Dyett High School for the Arts and a first-time participant in the show. Her entry, a digital photograph called Goddess, shows her carefully braiding hair, with perfect triangular parts. It’s an image that represents what Obamedo says is part of her legacy: she does hair, her mother does hair, her grandmother does hair, and it all happens in the family hair school, Your School of Beauty Culture, just a few miles away in Bronzeville. Braiding is her art.

“I think hair is very controversial because a lot of people think of it differently, especially Black hair,” Obamedo says. “I grew up in hair so I know a lot about it.”

Downstairs in the main gallery, families gathered near works of art that spanned the spectrum from oil on canvases to ceiling-to-floor-sized quilts. Josh and Dany Hightower brought their two sons, eight-year-old William and six-year-old Alex, from suburban La Grange Park. After leaving the Innovation Studio, the brothers proudly showed off their capes and badges in the Juried Art space. Their trek into the city on MLK Day was intentional.

“I wanted some type of Black culture experience to show my children,” Josh Hightower says.

A highlight for the family was the intersection of art and innovation that Black Creativity provides. The kids loved the creative and hands-on experiences, and their parents loved the expansiveness of what they were learning.

“I wanted something where the kids could have fun and learn, but not know they’re learning,” Dany Hightower says. “And we want them to have extensive experience with different fields.”

The Hightowers’s experience is one that the museum carefully designed: recognizing the contributions of Black creatives in a way that’s accessible and relevant to young minds.

Dr. Rabiah Mayas has been the museum’s Davee Foundation vice president of education and guest experience for about three months. As she works to shape the future of the Black Creativity program, she considers her own experience as a Black woman in science as an example.

“I remember often my own childhood,” Mayas says. “I grew up in the Washington, D.C., area and went to museums all the time and saw examples of African-American art and science. I know deeply how critical those moments were to my own exploration in the sciences and my ability to see myself as a scientific person.”

And now, Mayas vows to continue to cultivate experiences at MSI so that today’s Black kids can have that same ability.

“It’s an exciting opportunity,” Mayas says, “to highlight how creativity and curiosity, collaboration, critical thinking have pathways into the science as well as to the arts and that we make that connection real here through the Black Creativity experiences.”   v