Interview: Tonika Johnson Discusses the Folded Map Project, Which Brings Residents Together to Discuss Chicago’s Segregated Neighborhoods
Though not Chicago’s true geographic center, the intersection of Madison Street, which runs east to west, and State Street, which runs north to south, is the central point for the city’s address system. Chicago native Tonika Johnson, however, has been viscerally aware that the north-south dividing line is not a mere postal distinction since she was a teenaged photographer, an experience she discusses in the latest interview supported by Colossal Members.
Doing this project and talking to so many people across racial lines has taught me that it’s like this self-perpetuating, self-fulfilling prophecy of segregation. If your worlds are so separate, you’re only going to understand it as much as your lived experience allows. You can find truth in whatever silly thing you think because you don’t have anything to challenge it.
Trained as a photojournalist, Johnson ultimately decided against going into the field, choosing instead to remain an enthusiastic—and skilled—hobbyist. She created the Folded Map Project, which uses photography as a starting point to explore the creation of segregated neighborhoods in Chicago, and the systemic racism in urban planning, real estate development, and resource allocation that has allowed that segregation to persist.
The basis of the project is Johnson’s stark photographs of map twins—that is, houses that have the same address but on different sides of the city. Johnson initially had planned to just display the map twin photos side-by-side, but as she met the people whose homes she was photographing, she decided to use her journalism skills to facilitate recorded conversations between the occupants.
Read the full interview with Johnson to dive into the difference between art and photojournalism, the power of uncomfortable conversations, and why she’s bringing history to light.
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Last week, artist Olafur Eliasson (previously) unveiled a massive, wave-like artwork that mimics the rippled surfaces of the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. Comprised of 1,963 curved tiles, “Atmospheric wave wall” sits between the two bodies of water at Willis Tower and shifts in appearance based on the sunlight, time of year, and position of the viewer. It’s the Danish-Icelandic artist’s first public project, which was curated by CNL Projects and commissioned by EQ Office, in Chicago.
Speckled with orange pieces, the blue-and-green motif is constructed with powder-coated steel and based on Penrose tiling, a design with fivefold symmetry, which fills the undulating border. At night, a light shines through the street-side work, emitting a glow through the tile seams and further altering the appearance of the textured facade. Eliasson says about the work:
Inspired by the unpredictable weather that I witnessed stirring up the surface of Lake Michigan, ‘Atmospheric wave wall’ appears to change according to your position and to the time of day and year. What we see depends on our point of view: understanding this is an important step toward realizing that we can change reality.
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This week, we’re launching Chicago Art & Culture, a new weekly roundup of exhibition openings, artists talks, and other fun events occurring around the city. Each Thursday, we’ll share a shortlist of three to five happenings in the realm of art, design, and visual culture. As guidelines around COVID-19 mitigation evolve, we’ll be curating events that are either virtual, held outdoors, and/or following best practices. Sign up for Chicago’s newsletter—in addition to our daily, weekly, and shop updates—here, and check out the first issue. Keep an eye out for New York, Los Angeles, and London lists, too.
Have an event you’d like us to consider? Submit your idea to [email protected]. We’re looking to partner with local businesses and organizations each month, as well. Get in touch at [email protected] to sponsor Chicago Art & Culture.
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Through a series of brightly hued paintings titled Lost & Found, Max Sansing examines the human desire for happiness and peace through a distinct sense of place. Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, the artist is known for vibrant murals, which you can explore on Instagram, and smaller-scale artworks (shown here) that are rooted in the culture that’s unique to the city.
Each of Sansing’s paintings focus on a single subject who is overlayed with a thick brushstroke or whispy feather. The artist tells Colossal that the central characters are in the midst of a revelation, having just experienced or realized a needed adjustment. “I think at some point in most Chicagoans’ lives, you come to a point where you need a change. Either Chicago does that for you, or you do it for yourself. Finding that and unlocking those new pathways is a huge part of life,” Sansing says.
Many of the works that are part of Lost & Found hearken back to the artist’s upbringing. “Rapture,” in particular, features Anita Baker in the background, a gesture toward the R&B singer’s tunes that would reverberate throughout the neighborhood Sansing grew up in during the 1980s. In the same piece, though, a bullet propels toward a young boy’s head. “The threat of gang violence in the early 90s was kind (of) like a wake-up call out of adolescence,” the artist says, and a reality for many Black boys and men in the United States.
Sansing isn’t without hope, though. The artist writes, “I think we all want that moment in life to finally have clarity, peace, happiness, and in the end, that’s what a lot of civil unrest is about. Folks just wanna live and be. And some want that for others who can’t have it due to hate and systemic roadblocks.” As a whole, Lost & Found embodies the revelations necessary to bring justice and allow communities to thrive. “To quote the show title,” Sansing says, “these things are lost for some, and we have to find it.” (via Supersonic Art)
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Food banks across the United States have been seeing an unprecedented uptick in usage since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and dozens of Chicago natives and current residents have joined together to provide local aid. Since June 25, Prints for Hunger has raised $20,000 for the Greater Chicago Food Depository through its online fundraiser selling 84 photographers’ most significant works from the past few decades.
Prints are sold for $100, with $85 being donated to help community members in-need. “As more and more people file for unemployment, thousands of our neighbors are facing hunger for the first time,” organizers said in a statement about the organization, which has more than 700 partnerships across Cook County. “The Food Depository is a crucial member of a united community effort that brings food, dignity, and hope to our neighbors.”
We’ve gathered some of our favorite pieces here, but you can explore more of the collection on Instagram or the Prints for Hunger site, where the works are available for purchase. (via Block Club Chicago)
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Packed within a 6,000-square-foot space on Chicago’s south side is a fictional universe teeming with pinned up newspaper clippings, towers of retro electronics, and tons of vintage advertising from McDonald’s to Vienna Hot Dogs. It’s the world of Hebru Brantley’s iconic characters, Lil Mama and Flyboy, whose enlarged head rests on the floor in one room of the immersive installation, titled Nevermore Park. Moving through the pathways lined with plastic toys and paint-spattered pallets, visitors pass a downed spaceship and a brick wall of street art, elements that structure Brantley’s narrative for the surreal environment.
The Los Angeles-based artist cites the tales of the superheroes and comic books he engaged with during his childhood living in Chicago as directly impacting his current projects. “I’m in love with creating and I have so many stories I want to tell,” he tells Colossal. “I want my work to create a narrative that hasn’t been told before, in ways others haven’t seen expressed. I’m working to create the things I wished existed.”
Although Brantley created many of the objects specifically for Nevermore Park, he also amassed thousands of pieces of real ephemera that create a strong undercurrent of Chicago’s history as expressed through pop culture, toys, magazines, and found objects. The periodicals lining the newsstand, for example, belonged to his grandmother. “She had saved a number of them and it created a unique opportunity for me to incorporate these real historical artifacts into my body of work for visitors to experience. Everything weaves together with the goal of staying authentic to the stories I wanted to tell,” he says.
Nevermore Park, though, is intended “to be a total sensory experience,” inspiring Brantley to collaborate with WILLS on the audio component, offering a soundtrack that he says visitors always ask about. “Bringing people into a space they wouldn’t normally occupy with sounds that are familiar, amplify the story and culture even more,” he writes. “Sight is an important aspect of the experience but so is the sound piped into each section.”
If you’re in Chicago, there are tickets available to visit Nevermore Park through May 3. Otherwise, head to Instagram to keep up with Brantley and see what’s next for Flyboy, Lil Mama, and Nevermore Park.
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Editor's Picks: Design
Highlights below. For the full collection click here.