A Second Glance: African Diaspora art and the South Side of Chicago

April 12, 2013

One of the greatest local collections of African Diaspora art is located in a beautiful graystone on a recovering block in the Bronzeville area. The block itself, like many found throughout the neighborhood, masks the hidden treasures of many of its residents.

Owned by local artist and former teacher Felicia Grant Preston, the collection is a refreshing representation of underrated black artists on a local, national – and even international scale. The collection, like the South Side itself, is a surprise for outsiders unfamiliar with the rich history of black art, especially locally.

It may take a while to view the entire collection. On a recent Sunday afternoon, I spent a few hours in Preston’s home taking in the impressive collection and also inquiring about the state of art making and collecting on the South Side of Chicago. Preston was eager to share her thoughts. It doesn’t hurt that she is an artist, too.

Her artistic eye helped fuel her collection featuring the likes of Elizabeth Catlett, Lois Mailou Jones, Mary Reed Daniel, Faith Ringgold, AfriCOBRA, and Richard Hunt. And it is her perspective, as both a collector and artist, that gives her the specific understanding of the state of the art scene and market.

“We have a wealth of African American artists in the city, on the South Side, on the West Side,” Preston began. “But many of us are experiencing the same thing: our ability to reach new audiences.”

Preston understands the frustrations and desires of the black artists she supports, especially the local ones. Preston and her late husband, Ron, were inspired to hang their art in salon style. Nearly every surface, whether it is a wall, a mantel, or a coffee table is full of original work. Something new can be found in every corner, a neat and welcome surprise. There is no dearth of Chicago artists, and in particular, black Chicago artists. However, the artists are all vying for the same collectors, a limited pool even on a national scale. Locally, the fight for visibility is even more dire. The artists of the South Side often feel literally cut off from Chicago’s small, yet vital market.

“That’s what we’re working toward right now, getting our foot into new doors,” Preston said. Preston represents a growing number of local collectors interested in the perseverance and preservation of black Diaspora art. Preston’s work as an artist also fuels an understanding and valuing of the works of unknowns who continue to inspire her to work within and outside of her traditional mediums.

“If you buy work that you love, you will always love it,” Preston began. “Some people buy primarily for the aesthetics. Some people will only buy for work they think will appreciate in its value. I just like to get what makes me feel good, which is what art should make us do.”

In Preston’s collection, no one medium is given preference over the other, in large part, to represent the diversity of style, skill, and artistry of the works. “Each piece has a voice,” Preston said. “You just go and engage in that piece for that piece of time and you become lost in it, if only momentary.”

She is also a member of Diaspora Rhythms, a collector group that aims to, “build a passionate group of collectors engaged in actively collecting visual art created by contemporary artists of the African Diaspora as well as to expand the appreciation of  those artists’ work.” Besides building a larger group of collectors to purchase these works, Diaspora Rhythms also aims to expand the public knowledge of African Diaspora art. The group participates in and holds a number of different activities including giving tours of collectors’ homes and holding fundraisers like the recent “Frame Drive” for the art department at King College Prep High School.

An advocate of numerous art forms, it is Preston’s belief that art itself has a greater healing power. By opening up the avenues in which old and potential audiences can experience and own art, groups like Diaspora Rhythms are also giving voice to practices that speak to individuals on deeply personal levels. “If you look at any art form, that must be the purpose: to let us heal and help us release,” she said. Indeed, the history, vitality, spirit, and everyday livelihood of these artists, especially the ones based here in Chicago, tell us more about the city and ourselves than most any form of media. These works, a reflection of their passions and worldview deserve audiences as great as their vision.
 

Britt Julious blogs about culture in and outside of Chicago. Follow Britt's essays for WBEZ's Tumblr or on Twitter @britticisms.