CURATOR YESOMI UMOLU BRINGS RESEARCH-BASED PROGRAMMING TO LOGAN CENTER
By ALISON REILLY
The voice of a Ghanaian woman proselytizing reverberates within the walls of a dark room as images of a Roman Catholic church slowly appear on the screen. The video, titled Sunday’s Best, was the focus of Larry Achiampong’s solo exhibition, OPEN SEASON, which opened last September at the Logan Center Gallery. But the show extended well beyond the walls of the University of Chicago building. Yesomi Umolu, the curator of the exhibition, organized a mini-residency for the Achiampong, who spent three weeks visiting different religious organizations and community groups on the South Side.
“He was able to do interviews, live recordings and shoot new footage,” Umolu said. The field recordings and videos that the London-based artist gathered in Chicago were not included in the exhibition, but for Umolu, that was not the point. As curator of Logan Center Exhibitions, she hopes to give artists access to the vast resources and rich community that the gallery, the University of Chicago and the greater South Side can offer. “There is intellectual capacity here, there are interesting cultural histories, there are a number of great people to talk to, and there are practical resources, especially in this building. We have production facilities, and we have access to different types of spaces for making and thinking creatively.”
Umolu recently brought the Canadian born, Paris-based artist Kapwani Kiwanga to the Logan. While preparing for her show, Kiwanga stumbled upon the archives of twentieth-century color theorist Faber Birren in the Special Collections Library at the University of Chicago. Kiwanga, who studies the design of institutional spaces like prisons and hospitals, searched through folders of Birren’s color design studies and sketches for clients. Eventually, she was able to create prints for her exhibition that incorporated images from the archive as well color palettes used by Birren and his colleagues. But Umolu noted, “there was a lot she gathered that didn’t materialize in this exhibition but will be presented elsewhere, including an upcoming publication that we are co-publishing with the Power Plant, Toronto. I’m really excited that when we bring artists to the Logan it’s not solely about what they can do for us; there is a long-term investment on our part. There might be something that we are able to spark here that will have a life outside of our program.”
Since joining the Logan in August 2015, Umolu has launched an impressive international exhibition series and introduced a program to commission new work. She also takes seriously the mission of the University to educate students and prepare them for life after graduation.
“So much of this context is about pedagogy,” Umolu said. “It’s about investing in individuals and giving them the tools to go out into the world and apply that in the best way for them. I see that in a similar way to the artists we work with.”
This fall, Umolu is working with artist Cinthia Marcelle and filmmaker Tiago Mata Machado to present a trilogy of videos. Hailing from Brazil, Marcelle and Mata Machado are longtime collaborators, and the exhibition will be the first time their works Community (2016), One Way Street (2013), and The Century (2011) have been shown together. “The videos are in different ways a meditation on political agency and resistance in public space,” Umolu said, “with depictions of what look to be confrontations of bodies and objects in those spaces.” The exhibition will coincide with the Chicago Architecture Biennial, and Umolu is planning to use the opportunity to host a critical discussion on their collaboration.
In addition to planning exhibitions, Umolu is in the midst of an ambitious research project that explores the histories of Pan-Africanism and in particular the history of a Chicago delegation that attended FESTAC (Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture) in Lagos, Nigeria in 1977. “Chicago has always been a meeting point for members of the African diaspora especially in relation to progressive political and social movements,” she noted. “I’m really interested in mining that history.”
The project, tentatively titled The Ties That Bind: Waves of Pan-Africanism in Contemporary Art and Society, is supported by a curatorial fellowship from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and will take shape through a series of three public forums, organized by Logan Center Exhibitions but with the potential to be hosted at various sites around the South Side. “The aim is that the project is steeped in an ethos of collaboration and open exchange,” Umolu said. “Given that I am new to Chicago, and my colleagues are already well versed in Chicago’s art history, there’s a lot that I can learn from them and a lot that the Logan can learn as well.”
The first forum, which is scheduled for October 2017, explores the idea of the return. Umolu is interested in asking, “What does it mean to return to Africa as a site of artistic engagement, a site of political emancipation and a site of social inquiry? How is that related to Chicago and the history of the black arts movement here?” The second and third forums, which will take place in the spring and fall of 2018, will consider the themes of non-alignment and horizons in relationship to the African diaspora.
“The Warhol fellowships allows curators to have a certain level of autonomy to explore an idea at the very beginning of its genesis,” Umolu said. With this freedom, she was able to first delve into the research and then propose the format of the public forums. “Eventually the hope is that this is good groundwork for an exhibition. But what’s exciting about the Warhol is that there’s not necessarily a defined product that you have to deliver, you just have to follow the course of your research. The public forums will be things in and of themselves. They’ll bring a lot of value and conversation to this context.”
Yesomi Umolu is Exhibitions Curator at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago, where she is also a lecturer in the humanities division. Prior to joining the Logan, Umolu was Assistant Curator at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at MSU and Curatorial Fellow for Visual Arts at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.
Top image: Larry Achiampong, Sunday’s Best, 2017. Courtesy of the artist