Bronzeville art galleries build on talent of past

By Naomi Nix, Chicago Tribune reporter

2:14 p.m. CDT, April 5, 2012

It’s not hard for Cliff Rome to rattle off the names of famous artists who once called Bronzeville home. The 40-year-old businessman eagerly touts the neighborhood’s connections to the likes of Gwendolyn Brooks, Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole.

“Imagine a Saturday night here, what it must have sounded like,” says Rome as he points to the houses across from the Parkway Ballroom, once an entertainment hot spot for Chicago’s African-American elite. “Bronzeville was full of talent.”

It was this artistic legacy along with the changing demographics of Bronzeville that led Rome and his partner to found Blanc Gallery two years ago in the 4400 block of Martin Luther King Drive.

Bronzeville may no longer be the cultural mecca it was during the early 20th century, but in recent years the neighborhood has seen a number of new art galleries open, bringing attention to artists who might not get shown in other galleries or might not make it in more mainstream galleries.

“We’re not reinventing anything … it was a thriving community of intellectuals and entertainers,” Rome says. “It just made sense to be part of that cultural rise.”

Part of that rise is a tightknit group of collectors in Bronzeville who say South Side artists provide an aesthetic conversation found in few other places in the city.

Take for example, Daniel Parker, 71, who has amassed an art collection that includes more than 500 pieces, many from black artists in Chicago.

“I really don’t restrict myself, but I concentrate on artists (in) Bronzeville,” says Parker, who has been collecting art for more than 40 years. “I think the art represents the turbulence, the passion and all that is reflected in Bronzeville. … That is not reflected in (art from) any other part of the city.”

So 10 years ago, Parker and others founded Diasporal Rhythms, a nonprofit that promotes the collection of work from contemporary black artists. The group honors black artists in Chicago, hosts educational workshops and showcases its members’ personal collections through an annual home tour. Last summer, the group donated 300 frames and more than 100 art books to King College Prep in the North Kenwood neighborhood.

“Young people have to be exposed to the elements of their culture,” says Patric McCoy, 65, part of the group that founded Diasporal Rhythms. “They have to be shown through the adults that this is important. It wakes up inside of them the parts that make them critical thinkers.”

At Blanc, the featured artwork explores socially significant issues that might interest the Bronzeville community, like violence, media portrayal and gender identity in the black community. The gallery also works with nonprofits to focus on issues central to those organizations.

“We wanted to have something that was in the community for the community and feature artists that were in the community as well,” Rome says.

The current exhibit, “Kindred Visions,” showcases works of African-American artists in Chicago about the experiences of people of color.

The selected works span various mediums, but each offers a raw and sometimes jarring perspective on issues faced by racial minorities.

For example, a mixed-media collage called “Blindsided” by James Britt chronicles the life of a heavyset African-American man who is apparently adopted by Sandra Bullock and plays football, a reference to the actress’s Academy Award-winning turn in the movie “The Blind Side.”

In one image the man is sitting with the all-white family praying over a meal; in another he is a contestant on the reality TV show “The Biggest Loser.” Yet another features a magazine cover with the headline, “Sandra sends blind side son back to streets after he is cut from NFL.”

An installation piece by Frankie Brown features a wooden baby cradle. Covering it is a fleece blanket with “Rockabye Baby” in green lettering and a gun above the words. Underneath the blanket lies a mattress that reads “sleep.”

“It speaks to what happened this weekend: A 6-year-old girl got shot,” says Rome, referring to Aliyah Shell, who was slain in Little Village last month. Just as Little Village can be defined by more than just violence, Rome says a Bronzeville gallery can be much more. He says his ultimate goal is to promote fine art, not black art.

“Let it be good. Let the art be relevant, and it just happens to be in Bronzeville,” Rome says.

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