Hyde Park | Visual Arts

Unfurling the Past

Courtesy of the Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry

Courtesy of the Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry

Baraka de Soleil scoops the soaking wet fragments of a Paul Laurence Dunbar poem out of the bucket in front of him and solemnly offers them to each of the audience members crouching beside him in the dark. “Listen!” he says conspiratorially as he swirls the water in the bucket. “Listen!”

Soleil was in the midst of one of three newly commissioned performance pieces presented Saturday, October 12 at the University of Chicago’s Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry, part of an ongoing exhibition entitled “Unfurling: Five Explorations in Art, Activism, and Archiving.” The exhibition is curated by Daniel Tucker and Rebecca Zorach and based upon their Gray Center-funded project “Never The Same,” a historical archive collected from Chicago’s art communities. 

“Primarily what they’re doing is creating an archive that consists, mostly, of interviews and ephemera that relate to visually and politically engaged art in Chicago, from the late sixties to now,” said Mike Schuh, program coordinator at the Gray Center.

The idea for the performances arose when Tucker and Zorach invited the artistic collaborative Extinct Entities to create an installation specifically based on an interview with Kelan Phil Cohran, founder of the Affro-Arts Theater, a short-lived performance venue on the South Side. Cohran, a former trumpeter in Sun Ra’s Arkestra in Chicago, opened the Affro-Arts Theater at 39th and Drexel in December of 1967. The theater was a dynamic performance arts space but also a meeting place for civil rights activists and political radicals like Stokely Carmichael. The venue was closed down by the city in 1968, allegedly as a result of this influence.

The theater’s story immediately stood out as one worth focusing on, according to Anthony Stepter, one of the founders of Extinct Entities and the evening’s host. “This was an instance where one of the folks from the archive talked about a space that no longer exists. We thought that the space was really interesting, and sort of near and dear to our interests,” Stepter said. “Of course, there were other options but we thought that this one was super, super rich.” Extinct Entities in turn used the interview and the story of the theater as inspiration for commissioning the night’s three performance pieces. Each performer interpreted the concept of the Affro-Arts Theater differently, though all shared a level of political and social engagement in their pieces.

Alexandria Eregbu performed first, before an intimate audience of artists and locals in the Gray Center’s spare, loft-like exhibition hall. Her performance was simple and understated, more a spontaneous discussion of the issues on her mind than a composed piece.

“What I’m most interested in is opening up a dialogue,” Eregbu began as she calmly paced back and forth before the audience. “What’s been on my mind is this intersection between education and athletics, and how it influences you.” Eregbu delved into her backstory before conversing with the audience about the role athletics played in shaping their own identities as children. One audience member recounted how her father forced her to play tennis in Nigeria to prepare her for college life in the States, and another explained how she had joined the track team to fit in after a difficult move, prompting a discussion of athletics as inclusive and art as exclusive.

“A lot of my work is about sharing, and I thought it was important to create a comfortable environment for that with the audience,” Eregbu explained privately after the performance. In that way she succeeded, digging into the audience’s past as if she were curating a spontaneous archive of interviews to share.

Baraka de Soleil performed next, with a more composed yet highly creative piece that actively engaged the audience. He began by putting aside the two canes he uses to help himself walk, instead pulling himself across the room with ropes to sit before a bucket of water. What followed was a fast-paced mix of chanting, dancing, and the plastering of wet newspapers and poems all over the floor. By the end of the piece he had coaxed half of the audience to join him in dancing and snapping to a soul-influenced track, cajoling them with cries of “Keep going! Dance for your ancestors!”

Aside from its considerable entertainment value, Baraka’s piece stayed relevant to the political themes connected to the Affro-Arts Theater, as he travelled through history from slavery to Dunbar’s poetry to the civil rights era. At the same time his plastering about of poems and absurdist breaks into dancing seemed to imply that the literal content of these histories was less important than the spirit they evoked. Ultimately his most resonant question, asked to each audience member as an invitation to dance, was “Do you feel it?” Most did.

For the final performance, Tomeka Reid played several original pieces for cello, inspired by the theater as well as the history of Washington Park. Her performance was accompanied by cryptic voiceovers from Cohran and Washington Park residents (“Too many people are following the past. The past is dead.”) blended with electronic feedback. Her playing alternated between slow, echoing melodies and abstract improvisation layered over several delayed loops of cello parts. Though she was never difficult to listen to, the performance was chaotic at times, which worked well as a representation of both the tumult of the late sixties and the difficulties in recalling such a distant past.

Considering that the Affro-Arts Theater was only open for a short time several decades ago, it seems remarkable that such varied and creative material could surface from its story. By the end of the night, though, the story itself was never told—the three performers perhaps intentionally obscured the content of Cohran’s interview, instead using the emotional ideas that the theater evoked to drive their creativity. In a way this was the most honest approach. Thousands of buildings have disappeared from the South Side over the years, all with their own obscure histories, but the Affro-Arts Theater was part of a social movement. Extinct Entities demonstrated that though the physical space is gone, through dance, music and conversation we can still feel that movement.

 

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Thoughts on “Unfurling the Past”

  1. I remember coming to the theater as a youngster. My mother and father were proud of the black awareness movement. It shaped my present conscious to stand up boldly.

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