Diasporal Rhythms Annual Art Tour Shows a Passion For Living With Art
By GINNY VAN ALYEA
I first met the organizers, and cultural cheerleaders, behind Diasporal Rhythms 5 years ago, on the occasion of their 10th anniversary celebrating art of the African Diaspora. When I got to know collectors D.E. Simmons and Patric McCoy in 2013 they each told me about the group's mission as well as the changes they had undergone during a decade of finding their collective identity and outreach efforts. When Diasporal Rhythms started in 2003, there were four founding members; today they number closer to 100.
Back in 2013 when I first learned about the group and their tours, Simmons described the fall home tour series as uniquely reflecting the spirit of the South Side art community and having a goal of showing off the talented community of artists doing wonderful works worthy of notoriety, and more important, of being added to other collections. Simmons said at the time, “I always talk about us as the little organization that could, and can, and does."
He also warned me then that tour-goers can get a little overwhelmed at first, but ultimately the sensory overload is productive. He was absolutely right then, and now, and I decided it was time to dive right in. All the sudden the group's 15th anniversary arrived this fall. I knew it was time for me to finally go on this year's art tour of the South Side of Chicago taking place in October. I invited a friend, a Hyde Park native who knew the area well but admitted she wasn't aware of how many private collections there were throughout the South Side, and we had a fun and surprising afternoon going behind the scenes of some very special and uniquely personal art collections.
We met at the DuSable Museum of Art and boarded a cheerful, very Chicago, trolley at the south entrance to the museum. The tours offered this year went in three directions: Bronzeville, South Shore, and the South Suburbs. Our particular tour was just of Bronzeville and would encompass a museum as well as four private homes. You could go on one route in the morning and then another in the afternoon, but this year for me that was not to be (it was a miracle I could go at all, but my helpful husband took our two toddlers on a whirlwind visit through lunch in Hyde Park followed by stimulation overload at the Museum of Science of Industry for 3 hours). The variety of tours held on the tour weekend each year is evidence of the depth of art to be explored on this side of the city (I say side, since it certainly is not limited to a single neighborhood or ZIP code).
Our tour leader did not join us for our first stop, which worked out well since that left our group without a minder to remind us that we were on a schedule. With our first stop at the Smart Museum of Art, we were able to take in all the exhibitions on view right now and we definitely went over our allotted time. The exhibitions at the Smart fit particularly well with the DR tour, as the museum's newest show, The Time is Now! Art Worlds of Chicago's South Side, which opened in September, recreates a visual understanding and context of how in the 1960s and 1970s Chicago’s cultural landscape was shaped by the South Side’s vibrant art worlds. Focusing primarily on African American artists in and out of the Black Arts Movement, the exhibition features approximately 100 objects assembled from the Smart Museum’s collection and other public and private collections. Artists featured include several who are gaining broader appreciation as of late: Gertrude Abercrombie, Ralph Arnold, Jae Jarrell, Wadsworth Jarrell, Barbara Jones-Hogu, Carolyn Lawrence, Suellen Rocca, Gerald Willams, Karl Wirsum, and Joseph Yoakum, among many others.
Also on view at the museum is Expanding Narratives: The Figure and the Ground, the first iteration in a three-part exhibition series. Expanding Narratives uses the formal relationship between the figure and the ground in Western art history as a conceptual springboard into discussions around visual representation, the museum space, and the role of the Smart Museum’s collection in fostering the exchange of diverse perspectives. The exhibition includes works by artists from Chicago and beyond, including McArthur Binion, Nick Cave, Rashid Johnson, Kerry James Marshall, Kehinde Wiley, and several others.
Once our trolley driver herded us back on board, we were off to the home of an artist and collector, who also turned out to be my friend's former high school art teacher. Simmons' words all those years ago about art overload still didn't prepare me for the number of works hung in the collector's home. Right away she welcomed the group and began a room by room tour of the works she collected over the years, many by fellow artists and friends. Works both large and small are hung salon style on every wall, in every room, placed near African antiques as well as contemporary sculpture. We saw pieces by Sylvester Britton, Margaret Burroughs and Jae Jarrell, among others. The collector's enthusiasm was contagious – which embodies the point of the tours – to inspire visitors to look around their own communities to embrace creativity and make it part of day to day life. The collector said, as many do, that she buys what she loves and she loves it every day. She admits that once she got started, she couldn't stop, even when it seemed like there wasn't any more room.
The next collection in nearby Kenwood was in a two story condo owned by an art historian, professor and lecturer who's even published a large book, African Art: The Diaspora and Beyond. His home was packed with many antiquities and artifacts from Africa as well as contemporary paintings and sculptures by artists working today. He grouped once such collection into a section devoted to contemporary depictions of African and African American men, who as he said, are not throwing a ball or playing a horn. Here we saw a unique framed brass sculpture by Richard Hunt as well as more works by Margaret Burroughs, Joyce Owens, Ralph Arnold, and Faith Ringgold.
I saw Patric McCoy's remarkable collection several years ago and have never forgotten it, so it was a great opportunity to see how the collection has (somehow) managed to grow, even though it's hard to believe McCoy has an inch of wall space left in his Kenwood condo. McCoy, an environmental scientist, has amassed 1,100 works by more than 300 artists and he displays them all. Arranged in mini collections, such as music, evil eyes, bicycles, McCoy's passion is charming as well as infectious.
We ran out of time to enjoy the final stop on the tour, but it was in a Victorian home featuring a great deal of contemporary work, in particular work by the stained glass artist who lives there (and whose work we saw in each of the other homes on the tour!)
My friend and I enjoyed a gorgeous fall day in Bronzeville and left knowing we'd like to come back to spend more time exploring and appreciating these collections built by these warm and welcoming collectors. Each collection felt unique to the neighborhood as well as to Chicago itself, and enjoying home tours such as these emphasizes the message that art collecting is fun and enjoyable and most of all doable. There are no right or wrong ways to collect art or even to display it in your home. Art makes a home come to life and that is a joy to be shared.
Back when I visited with Simmons, he explained that getting people to interact at home is more unusual than one might think. He acknowledged there is some reluctance to opening up one’s home, “There’s something about not letting people into your space. Socially, I think in Chicago people tend to say, ‘Oh I’ll meet you here,’ but I’ve noticed that many people won’t invite you over. This home tour is special. It’s not only on the South Side, but it makes people open doors...so others can experience passion in a personal space. It’s a rare opportunity.” Homeowners quickly find it to be a very positive experience. They enjoy seeing guests inspired by the abundance of artwork. To Simmons, “It is a wonderful exchange - you get to talk about your passion for your collection and answer questions. We’re asking people to join the conversation and explore the possibilities. That openness has made many people want to support our organization.”
Top image: Margaret T. Burroughs, Faces (Faces a la Picasso), printed and signed in 1993, block carved circa 1960s