In a spacious gallery at the Chicago Cultural Center, images of the city’s everyday black life line the white walls that span floor to ceiling: a woman makes up a bed, a young boy listens to records, a duo of young girls play hand games through a shadowy window.
These scenes, captured by artist Cecil McDonald Jr., are part of the “In the Company of Black” exhibit and a 2018 book of the same name. Writer Tempestt Hazel and poet avery r. young contributed to the book. The photos, spanning almost a decade, include subjects McDonald knew personally and people he didn’t. McDonald’s goal? To show the beauty in life’s small moments.
McDonald said the most common images of black people in media depict extreme examples of what it means to be black. He said he aims to highlight people that fall between often-photographed groups like celebrities and marginalized or suffering people. He said the extremes represent the myths of “black exceptionalism” and “black misery,” and aimed to show images that more closely align with the experience of people he knows.
“I was thinking, well, where are people who teach eighth grade, where are the principals of a school, where are the people who drive the CTA bus?” McDonald said. “Those aren’t thought of as exotic and or interesting people to consider. And for me, they were ripe for consideration.”
McDonald’s subjects are doing housework, spending time with family, and doing what most consider day-to-day activities. Historically, McDonald said, this type of imagery of black people has been missing from the history of photography.
“To show the full breadth of the humanity of any group of people, you need to show everyone not just a particular group of people,” McDonald said.
Each image has its own story, but Greg Lunceford, curator of exhibitions at the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, decided to display most of the photos in clusters throughout the exhibit.
In one grouping, the steam rises from a hot comb as a young girl gets her hair pressed, an older woman meticulously dusts a lamp shade, and another woman — aged somewhere in between — sits on the couch with a pen in her mouth as she grips a piece of paper torn out of the notebook laying next to her. Each scene is undoubtedly unique, but there’s a sense of preparedness threaded through the separate but similar conversations. The photos all say: There’s work to be done today.
In another, light from outside peers through the windows in three different photos. A girl stares straight into the camera as light illuminates her eyes, a woman walks through a hallway in her home with her head held high as light bounces off her and her reflections in two surrounding mirrors, and a man reads a magazine as an angled window allows a prism of light to encompass him. The simple yet strong images evokes feelings of power and focus.
“All these little clusters of small vignettes for me, as a curator, is to try to pull the conversation out to a broader community because they were so singular and because there was kind of a conversation that was happening individually in each shot,” Lunceford said. “I wanted to disrupt them a little bit and I wanted to try to broaden the conversations. … In proximity, they become community.”
McDonald hopes those conversations feel familiar to guests of the exhibit.
“I would hope that audience members are enchanted by what they see, that they can somehow see themselves, that they on some level gain a better appreciation for the everyday activities,” McDonald said. “And not take for granted the people we interact with on a regular basis.”
The exhibit will end with a family house party closing event on April 14, complete with a house music DJ.
Arionne Nettles is a digital producer at WBEZ covering arts and culture. Follow her on Twitter at @arionnenettles.