Local artist avery r. young is best known as a poet, songwriter and performer. But during his time at the Arts Incubator, the artist-in-residence arm of UChicago's Arts and Public Life initiative, young's work has increasingly eschewed page and stage alike, and moved into gallery spaces.
“Avery’s background is in linguistics, specifically informed by a mixture of formal and vernacular language,” says Allison Glenn, program manager and curator for the Arts Incubator. “The texture of his visual work is informed by his relationship to language.”
His residency will culminate in an exhibition that young calls groun(d), opening Friday, Oct. 11. The work will explore material associated with the death of Trayvon Martin, “to discuss the ways in which black bodies are honored or dishonored.”
“I am a writer who's exploring the ways in which my play with language can be applied to the various materials outside of ink and paper," young says. "So this particular residency has been me exploring wood, tar—and for this particular exhibit, I'll be exploring Arizona Iced Tea bottles and Skittles." Martin was reported to have bought those items just before the shooting that resulted in his death on Feb. 26, 2012.
That combination will appear in the form of a rain stick, designed and built by jazz musician, instrument maker and Arts Incubator board member Douglas Ewart. "I didn't know how that would sound," young admits, laughing, but says he and Ewart "developed such a wonderful, just like, elder and junior relationship in this process," and their uncertainty in the result only increased their enthusiasm for the collaboration.
The rain stick’s importance is twofold. First, it brings together two materials that were physically present at the time of Martin's death, foregrounding their ordinariness and asking exhibition viewers to consider how and why they were mistaken for weapons. Second, in using those materials to simulate rainfall, young calls our attention to the single most infamous object from that night: Trayvon Martin's hoodie.
In the news coverage immediately following Martin's death, young couldn't help but notice the commentary about Martin’s hoodie. “It just got on my nerves." For the news media, the hoodie made Martin's body a site of scrutiny, in stories that tended to "critique the victim," as young puts it. With groun(d), young hopes to counterbalance the suspicion and fear that the hoodie has come to symbolize.
"When I found out that I had gotten the residency, I knew that I wanted to do work centered around this concept of value or honor," young recalls. "African Americans entered this country as slaves. We were property, and therefore didn't have any agency over our bodies." Young is responding to a narrative of disrespect for the black body, continuing through the murder of Emmett Till and incidents such as Hurricane Katrina and the killing of Trayvon Martin.
"This particular work chooses to honor and value that body,” young says. “It's really meant to honor the bodies and the lives of Trayvon and others who basically have lost their lives due to this prevalent problem in our country called racism."
The exhibition also features some textual content, including a letter from La Keisha Leek and selections from Ralph Ginzburg's 100 Years of Lynchings. The book, as young describes it, is “just news reports on lynchings. And one of the things that gets me is that this news is just news, and it's in the paper. It's just very happenstance."
Young says his work is the culmination of meaningful interaction with the Washington Park community and the Arts Incubator.
"I'm excited about the work, I'm excited about the space in which it's being displayed, right on the corner of Prairie and Garfield, inside a community that has been more than gracious to me," young beams. "I'm just looking forward to transforming the space. I hope that me transforming the space is indicative of the way I feel I've been transformed as an artist by this whole process."