Enter Chicago’s cavernous EXPO art fair from the west end of its Navy Pier exhibition space, and you’ll see 41 galleries from across the globe, all assembled by the careful eye of curator Aimé Iglesias Lukin.
These galleries, to the art world, may be “young,” but the artists themselves range from their 20s to their 80s, and are finally having their chance in the spotlight.
“When we’re talking about emerging artists, we’re not only talking about young artists, but we’re also talking about a lot of people that have been overlooked by the system — overlooked by history — by contemporary art,” Lukin said, “and that for me, are super important to highlight.”
EXPO is the largest art fair in the Midwest. And this small group of galleries make up the fair’s Exposure section, which features solo and two-artist exhibits by galleries that are 10 years old or younger. More than 80 galleries applied but only half made the cut — which was already over the slated 30 slots, Lukin shared. They sit among a much larger fair: Makeshift white gallery walls showcasing 129 international exhibitors representing 36 countries fill the space, making EXPO a trip around the art world.
Last year, WBEZ watched the contemporary and modern art fair come to life after their two-year hiatus, and the hustle and bustle continues this year. Lukin is one of the curators tapped by organizers to help bring new eyes to up-and-coming galleries.
“One of the goals was to highlight the global component,” said Lukin, who assembled a section that represents six continents and 15 cities. “That’s something that I felt was very important for a city like Chicago. Chicago is very much an art center, but people don’t know about that. I thought it was interesting to create a dialogue from galleries all over the U.S.”
Director and chief curator of visual arts at the Americas Society in New York, Lukin is originally from Buenos Aires, but is now based in New York. Her background on contemporary Latin American art helps attune her to trends in the art world as well as who contemporary art should be looking towards next.
These artists include Ozioma Onuzulike and Wole Lagunju. At the Nigerian kó gallery, Onuzulike’s large-scale ceramic installations with hand strung glass and clay beads call back to currency used during slavery transactions, while his honeycomb structures represent both the cramped urban environments and resilience of cities in Nigeria.
For Lagunju, his delicate floral paintings and highly adorned Yoruba masks are a confrontation of Western museums and how they have unethically obtained artifacts from colonized people.
“I began to take Western iconography and the iconography from traditional Yoruba culture, I began to fuse them together,” said Lagunju, who was standing in the booth on the fair’s opening day and eager to talk about his work. “A lot of these objects were taken away by looting, by stealing. I wanted to take back these objects and make them relevant to me and to my culture.”
While Lagunju has exhibited his art outside the United States with his New York gallery Montague Contemporary, EXPO Chicago is his first major stateside showing. This is the case for several other artists, and galleries, in the EXPOSURE section.
“EXPO was the very first fair we did anywhere,” said Marina Vranopoulou of Greek gallery Dio Horia. “Now we do fairs all over the world, but we love [EXPO] because it was the first fair that gave us a chance.”
EXPO Chicago also offers galleries a unique chance to get their art in more institutions across the Midwest and draws a unique mix of curators and collectors who don’t traffic other fairs, gallerists said.
The ultimate goal for Exposure is to not just get the artists noticed, but known. Within modern art, there’s been a rise in Black portraiture, but Lukin asserts that expanded diversity shouldn’t just disappear as a trend. “We definitely are in a moment in which there’s more attention to artists of color. We need to make sure now that this moment of visibility is not a trend, is not a fad,” Lukin said.
A key for the longevity of such art lies in finding a piece a home in a museum or high-profile collection. EXPO is also a draw for galleries because of its annual Northern Trust Purchase Prize, which gives three U.S. museums — this year from Seattle, St. Louis and St. Petersburg — money to shop for a work to go in a permanent collection. The museums must shop in the EXPOSURE section.
“Acquisition is just one of the ways in which we can make sure that these artists are not being shown temporarily, but that they’re being part of collections,” Lukin said. That’s how an artist becomes part of the art world’s permanent narratives.
EXPO Chicago runs April 13–16, 2023 at Navy Pier in the Festival Hall (600 E. Grand Ave.; expochicago.com). Tickets start at $35.
Mendy Kong is a digital producer at WBEZ. Follow them @ngogejat.