As an emerging interdisciplinary artist, Sulyiman Stokes, whose name was explained to him by his father as “one who brings light from within others out,” is quickly gaining recognition in the South Side and across the city. And he’s telling Black folks’ stories along the way, through photography and music.
By his own account, Stokes’s photographic journey began quite unexpectedly. It wasn’t until he was twenty years old that he picked up his first camera.
“I think I had a Canon Rebel or some random camera that was like a hundred bucks or something,” Stokes said. “I wasn’t serious about photography or anything like that, you know, I just happened to buy a camera, being around college campus…But 2018 is when I became serious about photography being a medium…I made the transition to this as a part of my artistry.”
Stokes’s photographs are Black-centric. Through them, he captures the ways in which Black people express their diverse talents and rich culture in everyday life. Take, for instance, his rich and lively image of the stilt walkers dressed in African garb while strolling effortlessly through the crowd in Hamilton Park in Englewood during an outdoor event. Or the expressive image of young people learning to make banjos during a summer workshop in Lincoln Park sponsored by Music Moves Chicago.
Stokes captures the essence of his subjects through the use of soul-stirring and expressive images. “I don’t really set up shots,” Stokes said. “I don’t really do that kinda thing…Because I really want to document a person as they are in that moment.”
Although he’s only been doing photography for four years, Stokes has already accomplished quite a bit. And he shows no signs of slowing down. Aside from photography, Stokes is also musically inclined and somehow finds the time for this additional talent which he developed early on in his youth.
“In grammar school, my first instrument was clarinet,” Stokes recounted. “Then that became trumpet, and…when I went to high school my band director had me switch to baritone.” Along the way, Stokes learned to play the tuba, piano, and French horn.
And let’s not forget the drums. As a daily ritual, Stokes “talks” through his drums as a form of meditation as if connecting with the ancestors. His drums of choice are the djembe, a rope-tuned and skin-covered goblet drum played with bare hands. At times he speaks through the cajón, a box-shaped percussion instrument originally from Peru that is also played with the hands.
While Stokes admits that on some days the ritual is overlooked, due to his hectic schedule, he still seems to find time to parlay these musical gifts into projects across the South Side that continue to reflect the Black journey and struggle.
“He is an individual walking with multiple powers,” said award-winning Chicago poet and Floating Museum co-director avery r. young. “I see Sulyiman’s work, and I see leaps. And I know that the magic is in the leap.”
That leap has directed Stokes’s path over to the Art Institute of Chicago where his works are currently on display as a part of the Chicago art collective Floating Museum exhibit titled, “A Lion for Every House.” The exhibit began June 16 and runs through October 17.
The Floating Museum uses art to explore relationships among community, architecture, and public institutions and is co-directed by avery r young, Jeremiah Hulsebos-Spofford, Faheem Majeed, and Andrew Schachman.
The idea behind the project was a novel one. The Floating Museum and three curators extended invitations to ten photographers and paired them with ten local “hosts” made up of political leaders, activists, and art supporters in the city. It called for each host to choose one of three photographs from the Art Institutes’ collection and a copy of that work was sent to the host to display in a place they designated as “home.”
Stokes was one of the photographers chosen to participate in the project and his designated host was Serge JC Pierre-Louis, founder and past president of the DuSable Heritage Association. They made contact via Zoom during the height of the pandemic but eventually, they met in Pierre-Louis’s home setting for the portrait.
When asked how it felt to photograph Pierre-Louis, Stokes smiled. “Incredible guy,” he said, and later added, “You know, I really just wanted to kinda just shut up and listen. I mean, obviously when folks of that stature…when they speak, you want to listen because there’s so much wisdom being shared.”
Stokes’s portrait of Pierre-Louise as featured in the exhibit shows him seated rather majestically in an armchair, seemingly deep in thought while gazing into the distance.
“[His] condo, which is right off the lake downtown…this was where DuSable arrived or something like that,” said Stokes. “It’s like a divine kind of setup…I felt like this was such an important thing and there was like this extreme amount of reverence that I wanted to capture, like the seriousness of the moment. I wanted the kind of honor that I felt being in there and observing that… I did want that to be on display as well. I wanted other folks to experience that.”
Once the session with Pierre-Louis was complete, Stokes sent the organizers several shots to choose from and let them take it from there.
In addition to the exhibit, Stokes led an in-person portrait workshop titled, “Portrait Stories with Photographer Sulyiman Stokes” at the Art Institute on August 6. The workshop, which was co-sponsored by the Chicago Public Library, included an interactive gallery featuring Stokes’s favorite artwork from the museum’s collection.
Participants had the opportunity to spend time in the A Lion for Every House exhibit, learning about Stokes’s creative process along with the story of the exhibition. The tour culminated with Stokes leading a storytelling and portrait photography session in the galleries.
For those wondering about what future projects Stokes may have in the works, he revealed that it will be of a musical nature.
“It’s a new project entirely and it’s named, ‘Underground Railroad to 79th’ because I grew up in Auburn-Gresham…a big part of it is highlighting the neighborhood in which I grew up and its importance to me, and I want to impact that community. And it also pays homage to those who came before us and kind of connects those dots for us.”
He added, “What I hope it does is make certain facets of Black history accessible for us…anyone who is willing to listen.”
You can follow Sulyiman Stokes on Instagram @sulyiman_.
Dierdre Robinson is a writer and accounting manager in Chicago. She has a BA in Journalism from Michigan State University. She last wrote about multimedia visual artist Jewel Ham for the Weekly.