The need for care has never been so vital—and so exhausting. While a long summer of protest pushed the boundaries of what must happen to make Black Lives Matter, often resulting in violent reprisal, the impending presidential election continues to narrow this open terrain of communal support and anger into the compromised binary of America’s two-party system. Hovering over everything, of course, are the hundreds of thousands of global COVID deaths that cannot be mourned in any traditional way, the very impulse to grieve together a major contributor to the virus’s continuation.
When Smart Museum curators Berit Ness and Jenny Carty began sketching out their plans for “Take Care” in early January, the relevance of their fall exhibit, opening October 1, could only be imagined. Now, as the imperative to give and receive care looms over our lives, the curators hope the exhibit will help materialize the complexities of such necessary but fraught emotions, a needed space for reflection amid irreconcilable harm.
“Something we’ve thought about from the beginning was, how can we display these heavier works alongside moments of levity?” Ness says. “We were really thinking about what it means to care, and how care can be a vehicle for social, political, and environmental justice, but also what it means when care is absent.”
The Smart Museum exhibit reflects the diversity of forms care work assumes. Moreover, the curators have sought to expand the museum space to encompass the care practices of guest curators and visitors through their “Collective Care” series, which will invite people to supply rotating pieces to the exhibit, starting with an intimate photographic series by Song Yongping called My Parents, curated by University of Chicago Assistant Professor of Medicine Brian Callender. The sum total of those items cannot begin to encompass caring’s many forms, but the thoughtful juxtaposition of works in the exhibit still gives definition to the many places caring can emerge.
Throughout their planning, the curators drew from a recent article by Tamara Kneese and Hi‘ilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart called “Radical Care: Survival Strategies for Uncertain Times.” As Knesse and Hobart argue in the piece: “Because radical care is inseparable from systemic inequality and power structures, it can be used to coerce subjects into new forms of surveillance and unpaid labor, to make up for institutional neglect, and even to position some groups against others, determining who is worthy of care and who is not.”
For the many underpaid hospital workers, service workers, or in-home nurses most at risk right now, this sense of overburdening will be well-reflected. For example, in Rosalind Solomon’s photograph Mother, Daughter, Maid. Johannesburg, South Africa, 1988-90, the country’s racialized disparities become visible in a single household, as a beaming white mother and child sit together while their Black maid kneels beside them. In other works, unmade beds and hunched-over parents attest to the immense toll that supporting others takes, making it impossible just to keep oneself going.
One work influential to the exhibit’s development was Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s Manifesto For Maintenance Art 1969! Written after Ukeles became a mother, it became a foundational work of feminist conceptual art, extolling the virtues of maintenance against the perpetual drive for novelty. As Ukeles wrote, describing the daily acts that constituted her life: “Now, I will simply do these maintenance everyday things, and flush them up to consciousness, exhibit them, as Art.” Ukeles’s manifesto is supplemented by Chicago DSS: Division 7, Division 4, Division 2, Division 6, a film she codirected with Julian Flavin, that depicts Chicago sanitation workers tending the city’s streets, an underappreciated support that makes all city life possible.
“Ukeles’s work is all about this unseen labor taking place to make places thrive,” Ness says. “It helped us think about the ways that this moment has brought forward new kinds of essential labor to keep places going.”
Despite the many burdens placed upon those asked to constantly care without support, the undeniable beauty and tenderness inherent in care’s best moments, even against long odds, are also present in the exhibit. For Hobart and Knesse, “It is precisely from this audacity to produce, apply, and effect care despite dark histories and futures that its radical nature emerges.” Whether it’s the loving embrace of two living room dancers in Kerry James Marshall’s Slow Dance, or the sense of community concern for the under-resourced Englewood neighborhood in Amanda Williams’s Color(ed) Theory series, care expands the boundaries of what’s possible, nourishing us to survive another day. As the pandemic rages on, with no obvious horizon for the kinds of transformations that would make collective life for those most in need of support sustainable, “Take Care” is an invitation to reconsider the many scales at which we can support one another, and the newfound worlds that may emerge should care get its proper due. v