‘All That Light’ exhibition highlights decade of UChicago resident artists

Since 2011, the APL-CSRPC Artists-in-Residence program has centered Black and Brown artists working on Chicago’s South Side

Not long ago, Victoria Martinez taught art in six different schools across Chicago while trying to maintain her own art practice. Now, five years after participating in the Artists-in-Residence program at the University of Chicago, she can focus on her art almost full time.

“I’m working as an artist; I’m making,” Martinez said. “I’m super excited to continue to chase my dreams.”

Two of Martinez’s installations can be seen in All That Light, a retrospective exhibition celebrating 10 years of the Artists-in-Residence program co-sponsored by UChicago’s Arts + Public Life and the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture. The exhibit, which is free and open to the public through Sept. 11, showcases the work of over 30 former residents.

Over the past decade, the UChicago residency has springboarded many talented Chicago artists into the next stages of their careers. Last year Ayana Contreras, a 2014-15 resident, published her first book, Energy Never Dies: Afro-optimism and Creativity in Chicago. Cellist and composer Tomeka Reid (2012-13) has since released two albums with her jazz quartet.

Faheem Majeed, a member of the residency’s first-ever cohort in 2011, went on to exhibit a solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and establish the Floating Museum, which creates large-scale public art around Chicago.

According to exhibition curator Tracie D. Hall, future Chicago art historians will distinguish between two eras: “before AIR and after AIR.”

Creating an incubator of talent

Originally conceived by Prof. Theaster Gates—himself an acclaimed artist—the Artists-in-Residence program is a joint effort between UChicago’s Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture (CSRPC) and Arts + Public Life (APL), a community-centered arts organization based in Washington Park.  

Each year, three Chicago-based artists are selected to participate in the 10-month residency by a jury of staff, faculty, arts administrators and community members. The residency is designed for artists with an interest in exploring themes of race, ethnicity, and culture and a practice committed to engaging local South Side communities—something that sets the Artists-in-Residence program apart. 

“It’s not the kind of residency where you go off in the woods and think by yourself,” said Tracye A. Matthews, executive director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture at UChicago. “How do you think with communities in mind? How is your practice enhanced or fed by community?”

The Center pulls together faculty, students, and staff across the University to deeply engage in issues related to race and ethnicity. Residency facilitators believe artists absolutely have a voice in these conversations.

“I think the role of the artist is to be an instigator, an active participant in a community,” said Isis Ferguson, senior director of engagement and partnerships at UChicago’s Arts + Public Life.

While in residence, artists are given a monthly stipend, administrative support and studio space in the Arts Incubator to use however they want.

“What was most beneficial during the residency program was having a space to make work at a larger scale, which had been an artistic goal of mine for a while,” said 2021 resident zakkiyyah najeebah dumas-o'neal.

Residents can also pursue related research through University of Chicago libraries and archives. Victoria Martinez was able to connect with faculty and students studying the African presence in Mexico—a topic she’d been interested in researching ever since 2011 when she spotted a mural in Veracruz, Mexico featuring Mexican and African people working together in a field. 

As part of the annual culminating exhibition for each cohort, Martinez displayed pieces made from fabric dyed with hibiscus flowers—an important ingredient in Mexican cuisine. “You have to allow the material to be what the material wants to be,” said Martinez. 

Today, she’s preparing for a solo show at the Chicago Cultural Center that incorporates her dyed textiles as well as interactive displays.

“All that light”

In 2021, a virtual event celebrating Arts + Public Life’s 10-year anniversary began with a reading of each resident's name. Panelists Theaster Gates, Jacqueline Stewart, and Adrienne Brown—all former or current APL directors—were in awe of the impact of the program on Chicago’s art scene. Moderator Tracie D. Hall, executive director of the American Library Association, reflected, “Ten years and all that light.”

Struck by the power of that statement, administrators later approached Hall to curate a retrospective exhibition centered around this theme of “light.”

“I wanted to examine all of its definitions: to make things visible, to radiate energy or heat, to cause to ignite,” said Hall.

Over 30 former residents responded to the exhibition invitation with paintings, works on paper, sculptures, mixed media pieces, sound and video installations. Though each piece and artist is unique, throughlines appear—often in the form of shared experiences as Black and Brown people. 

Kate Schlachter, assistant director of strategic planning and programming at Arts + Public Life, hopes visitors leave All That Light with a better sense of the rich talent thriving on the South Side.

“Our walls are literally overflowing with beautiful work,” she said. “This is the tip of the iceberg.”

To get the full experience, All That Light visitors should plan to stop by the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts and the Arts Incubator. A list of upcoming programs and events related to the exhibition can be found on APL’s website

All That Light was produced in collaboration with Logan Community Arts, Logan Center Exhibitions, APL and CSRPC.