I jumped at the opportunity to review Garfield Park Conservatory’s art exhibit, “An Otherworldly Existence: Afrofuturism and the Environment.” The solo exhibition of twelve collages created by Black, queer, South Side artist and educator Kee Merriweather explores the intersections between Afrofuturism, environmentalism, and the survival of people of color. Beyond survival, Merriweather imagines empowered existences, free of systemic and environmental restraints.
Curiosity fed my enthusiasm, even though recent and past injustices had dimmed my once sunny views of the world. Roe v. Wade had been reversed—now a woman and her doctor could go to jail if she exercised her choice not to bear a child. The Voting Act had been diluted and downright dismantled in some states. The number of targets on Black people’s backs had now escalated from walking and driving while Black to knocking on the wrong neighbor’s door while Black. Some cities run by Black mayors, like my husband’s hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, had been seized by their state governments.
Environment-wise, particularly in Chicago, Black neighborhoods were being swallowed by dilapidated or boarded-up buildings, vacant lots, and brownfields left behind by former industrial neighbors.
My belief in a future without struggle was filed somewhere with things I had once thought to be possible, like Santa, the Easter Bunny, or the tooth fairy.
And as a speculative literary writer, I just couldn’t see a future free of historical struggles with roots so deeply ensconced in systemic racism that they were invisible. But I could see a future where Black people, as we have in the past, were survivors who prevailed, despite the continued existence of systemic and environmental racism. My characters might have to do some finagling or flee the earth to live well, but I definitely see our continued presence in the distant future.
Other artists have addressed the dilemma of where Black people will be in the future. Utopia or dystopia?
Renowned sci-fi author Octavia Butler, who passed away in the winter of 2006, didn’t seem to believe in utopias either. Instead, she wrote about dystopian worlds where only resourceful individuals with a high capacity to persevere survived. The environments in her novels were far from perfect and constantly evolving.
On the other hand, Afrofuturist musician and artist Sun Ra, popularly known for the song “Space Is the Place,” represented himself as a citizen from another planet and inspired Merriweather’s art and interest in Afrofuturism. He was also known for his nonconformance and his musical blends of Charlie Parker’s bebop with a hint of New Orleans jazz—at least to my ears. His songs painted a galactical utopia for Black people who had been oppressed on Earth.
I lean more toward Butler’s fictional philosophy, which seems to question if our future selves could survive our former worst sins. Still, I was intrigued by Merriweather’s artistic portrayals of African descendants evolving and thriving in clean and just environments free of racist systems and policies. Their “Otherworldly” collages portray a future in which Black people are empowered by the environment and themselves, based on their past and current practices.
“Black people have always been environmentally conscious. Before I knew the word recycle, I was taught practices on how not to be wasteful. My family saved plastic bags, food containers, and recycled oil and water. I was taught to be conscious of food waste,” Merriweather said.
“I believe Black people will continue to be environmentally conscious in the future. However, as climate change impacts many communities of color, I hope as a society we are able to think more sustainably about our future of the planet,” they added.
Each collage in “An Otherworldly Existence: Afrofuturism and the Environment” juxtaposes African people from Nigeria, Benin, and other West African countries with lush ecological scenes. Images of African men and women dressed in cultural garb abound. They use portraits of women, their heads wrapped in African cloths or adorned in various braided styles. Behind them are photos of nature at its best. Seemingly untouched by existing environmental and climate scars are photos of waterfalls, galaxies, clear blue skies, star-covered nights, grassy terrains, forests, mountains, and unpolluted waterways.
Onyx Engobor, Garfield Park Conservatory’s Exhibition Specialist, felt Merriweather’s use of African people and a virgin environment was intentional.
Prior to curating this exhibit, Engobor had been tasked with putting together an art exhibit that spoke to “Earth Month,” and one that would demonstrate the intersection between Afrofuturism, the environment, and Black, Brown, and Indigenous people.
Engobor was familiar with Merriweather’s work as a collagist and digital artist and invited them to create work for a solo exhibit based on those intersections.
“Afrofuturism and the environment…is a framework that creates lots of opportunities for Black environmentalism and Black radical ecologies,” said Engobor.
Engobor wanted art that would encourage people of color to “take control of their narratives when it comes to their neighborhoods and environmental policymaking.” She found it in Merriweather’s work.
According to Engobor, Merriweather’s use of African people and landscapes was symbolic of a future in which Black, African, and other people of color who had once been victimized and marred by oppression could return to their pre-colonized or pre-slavery selves with innate senses of agency and autonomy. This future would also include people of color living on a restored Earth.
Believing that people are more likely to emulate what they can see themselves in, Engobor was drawn to Merriweather’s collages as an art form because of their accessibility.
“To create a collage, you don’t have to know how to draw, paint, or take pictures. You can create from materials and things that are already at your disposal,” she said, adding that accessibility and empowerment were necessary for West Siders who had often been disenfranchised. From experiencing illegal dumping, higher rates of air pollution, and a lack of green spaces and tree canopy, West Siders can often feel as if the city has forgotten them.
In addition to Merriweather’s solo exhibit, the Garfield Park Conservatory hosted a reception for community residents. Participants collaborated to create a poster-sized collage, depicting ways of life and neighborhood icons and cultural venues from the West Side of the city.
Though I grew up in Gary, Indiana, and live on Chicago’s South Side, I have roots on the West Side. My father grew up on the West Side. My three older siblings grew up in Austin, where I too spent my summers while in college. I saw friends get married at the Garfield Park fieldhouse.
The community-made collage warmed my heart with images of a man teaching a boy to ride a bike, the iconic Pink House (which is no longer pink but recently avoided being demolished after its new owner purchased and renovated it), the beautiful Garfield Park fieldhouse on Central Park Avenue near Washington Park, two siblings posing for a camera, well-kept apartment buildings, and manicured business districts.
I know these places. They comprise a home away from home, and in Merriweather’s art, if you just allow yourself, you might embrace their “otherworldly” mission and see yourself—whether a person of color or disenfranchised in other ways—as deserving of quality lives and healthy, safe, and sustainable environments.
“In Merriweather’s world, there is a reclamation of resources and reparation of sorts. Black people rediscover their sense of agency and autonomy and place in the world,” Engobor Said.
If you want to see that world or talk about it with friends or other spectators, visit “An Otherworldly Existence: Afrofuturism and the Environment.” The exhibit will remain open in the Garfield Park Conservatory community room until June 30, 2023. For exhibit hours, refer to the Garfield Park Conservatory website, garfieldconservatory.org.
For more information on Kee Merriweather, their collages, digital work, and other projects, follow them at @KeeMerriweather, @Homagetoblkmadonnas, @crunkmusicarchive, and Substack.Homagetoblkmadonnas.
Tina Jenkins Bell is a published creative writer and freelance journalist who has written for numerous local and national organization publications about economic and community development in addition to the Chicago Tribune, Crain’s Chicago, Shareable.net, and others.