Courtesy of featured artist Tonika Johnson

The stately Hamilton Park Cultural Center is home to an overwhelming variety of community programming. In a given month, the auditorium’s stage might be the backdrop for a yoga class, a film screening, or a footwork showcase by dance crew The Era. On Saturday, October 15, it served as the site of the first annual Englewood Art Fair, which drew over a hundred attendees. Teenage girls circled booths selling jewelry, drawings, t-shirts, bags, and aromatherapy oils, snacking on complimentary tea sandwiches and brie. An African art pop-up store took up a side room by the entrance, displaying dozens of West African carved statues and paintings for sale at unbelievably reasonable prices.  In the auditorium, toddlers climbed up the stairs to the stage, where featured artist Tonika Johnson’s photos were displayed.

Johnson’s vivid photographs celebrate the everyday moments of life in Englewood. “My passion for Englewood and community work, plus my belief in the power of contemporary art [as] a conduit for social awareness, motivated me to use my art to challenge public perception of Englewood,” she wrote in an email. “The ongoing media vilification of Englewood is not a true reflection of the community I was so lovingly raised in. The Englewood I know has little girls picking dandelions from vacant lots with overgrown grass; young groups of black boys riding their bikes happily and freely; [b]lack men pushing their children in park swings; teenagers turning the dirt for their grandmothers’ backyard gardens; and young women sitting on their front porches laughing and relaxing—this is the Englewood I see and decided to photograph five years ago.”

These aren’t just empty words—as I stood in front of Johnson’s prints, she was approached by a teenaged girl. “How much are these?” the girl asked, referencing a stack of prints displaying five boys on their bikes, “’Cause these are my friends in this picture! I see them all the time.”

Torrance Smith

Connections between the art on display and the real people who participate in its creation were everywhere at the fair. Krystal Webb, an art teacher at Wentworth Elementary, talked with pride about her students’ art, which was on display in a corner of the room. There were colorful drawings dealing with negative space, objects related to movement and travel from her segment on the Great Migration, and a contour portrait of Neil deGrasse Tyson, backed by a collage of stars and galaxies. She told me she emphasizes the process of creation with her students, often using unconventional materials, to develop her students’ confidence in their own ability to shape their communities.

Much of Hamilton Park Cultural Center’s programming of late is coordinated by Asiaha Butler, who is herself a study in the ability of individuals to shape their communities—she’s the co-founder and president of R.A.G.E., the Resident Association of Greater Englewood, founded in 2010.  More recently she’s added the title of president of HPAC, the Hamilton Park Advisory Council (which celebrates its second birthday this month) to her long list of achievements. In addition to coordinating the fair, she’s responsible for the aforementioned impressive collection of West African art, a recent donation to R.A.G.E. The profits from the sales of the pieces, as well as the fifty-dollar vendor fee for artists, she tells me, will all go toward HPAC’s upcoming events, from a turkey drive in November to a toy giveaway in December.

She took a break from her whirlwind pace to tell me the fair was successful in “bringing people in and out of Englewood to see the beauty of the Hamilton Park Cultural Center—many people forget about this beautiful asset we have here.” And with that, she was off again, to arrange more food platters, chat with vendors and friends, and help the event’s cameraman interview attending artists.

Despite being only two years old, HPAC has already taken strides toward becoming a powerful organizational force in Englewood. “[We are] getting our foundation in order with officers and members who are truly committed to the success of Hamilton Park Cultural Center [and are] making residents and stakeholders more aware of Hamilton Park,” said Butler. They elected their new officers in April and have already hosted a back-to-school drive, held a house music event to recruit more members, and conducted surveys to get the input of park users on how to best direct their efforts.

The dedication of HPAC, R.A.G.E., and the Englewood artists at the fair demonstrates how misguided the  public perception and media coverage of Englewood can often be. According to Johnson, that sensationalized coverage “is not the Englewood I know or experienced as a young girl growing up. Even today, this is not the Englewood I see through my lens—Englewood is my home!”

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