Virgil Abloh's "Figures of Speech" at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago Credit: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

In the past two weeks alone, I’ve found myself at Wrightwood 659, the Renaissance Society, the Leather Archives & Museum, and the Smart Museum. All varying in public prominence, I feel lucky to know these spaces, to really get inside of them, to see show after show come in and out. And these are just a few of the hundreds of impressive DIY spaces, commercial galleries, and large museums that we have in this City of the Big Shoulders.

This year in particular hasn’t been that easy for me. Thinking about trekking out into the world to look at art when you’re beat up emotionally and mentally from the current political climate is exhausting. However, artists persist, and their persistence inspires me to keep going and to keep doing. So, that’s what I did, and here are some of the things I saw along the way.

There’s no denying that yes, this was a dim year for the world, but it was a damn good year for art.

Breakout artist (and Reader contributor) Zakkiyyah Najeebah addresses politics through womanhood, queerness, and narrative in her photography. Her exhibit “A Different Kind of Love Story: For Us,” which closed at Adds Donna in January, exhibited the complex identities of Black women and how they are consumed in media. Large-format black-and-white photographs as well as smaller Polaroids present playful and candid moments where the subjects are simply living their everyday lives. By embracing Alice Walker’s idea of “Womanism,” Najeebah’s show at Adds Donna highlighted strong, vulnerable, and multifaceted images of Black and queer women.

“Still Here: Torture, Resiliency and the Art of Memorializing” opened at the Arts Incubator in March with six commissioned design proposals. Juan Chavez‘s glass structure with aloe vera plants in the center symbolized healing, while Sonja Henderson’s piece featured rows of chairs that memorialized each torture victim. The designs were meant to be spaces for people to sit, heal, and honor the victims who suffered at the hands of the Chicago Police Department. The designs were also considerations for the permanent Chicago Torture Justice Memorial, which will bring awareness to the torture of more than 120 Black men and women by the Chicago Police Department from 1972 to 1991. In June, it was announced that artists Patricia Nguyen and John Lee’s stone design was chosen for that monument.

Leather Archives & Museum has always been historic to the queer leather community and lately, their Guest Artist Gallery (GAG) has been putting the museum at the forefront for queer artists. “Fruiting Bodies,” a solo exhibition from Andrew Bearnot, opened in March and focused on objects found in the archives like personal correspondence and Chuck Renslow‘s ball of pubic and beard hair, alongside Bearnot’s pieces made with hair and glass. The works were intimate, highlighting the queer archives of Robert Gaylor, whose “obedient slaves” shaved the pubic hair from their right testicle and mailed it to him. Bearnot exhibited these notes—and hair—with his “hair drawings” and bulbous-shaped glass pieces.

In May, the National Museum of Mexican Art opened “Peeling off the Grey,” which looked at the overwhelming spread of gentrification in Pilsen. The turmoil felt within the community was exhibited by artists like Sam Kirk and Sebastián Hidalgo, whose images depicted the toll that gentrification has taken on the neighborhood. Kirk’s painting, All we fought for, all we built, illustrated the disappearance of Pilsen residents by removing the color from their bodies and painting them in a grey hue. Video, installations, photographs, paintings, and collage works were all included in the group show that criticized the dehumanization and removal of the people of Pilsen.

In June, fashion designer, DJ, architect (and so much more), Virgil Abloh opened his show “Figures of Speech” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Abloh’s interest in Chicago and the urban environment has found its way into the artist’s day-to-day creative practice—he’s worked with Kanye West on design, album covers, and merchandising. This first-ever museum exhibition dedicated to Abloh featured finished works alongside prototypes, taking viewers through his creative process. The 20-year time span of Abloh’s work exemplified his interest in advertising and branding. Additionally, the show ran with a pop-up shop called “Church & State,” where limited merch was sold to those willing to drop a pretty penny (hoodies were priced at more than $600). As a result of Abloh’s presence, the number of visitors to the museum this summer doubled compared to previous years.

“Sex Militant” sparked a protest this fall from a local Catholic church when the two-night exhibition and performance ritual event opened in September. Jex Blackmore collaborated with various artists to create a body of work on the connection between eroticism and state violence. The exhibition featured repurposed American flags, images from protests, and a live droning guitar alongside a spoken-word performance, and a glowing cross being pulled by performers in fetish play. The show was political, full of tension, and incredibly powerful, which had the Catholic clergy shaking in their boots and knocking on Co-Prosperity Sphere’s door.   v