THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by Rebecca Memoli
“Urban Griot” at the Hyde Park Art Center (HPAC), on view through April 8, 2018, features the works of Bill Walker whose murals have inspired generations throughout Chicago. Walker was a pioneer of public art. His most famous piece of work was The Wall of Respect at 43rd Street and Langley in the city’s south side.
The Wall of Respect, featuring heroes of African-American culture is celebrating its 50th anniversary and was featured earlier this year at the Chicago Cultural Center. This exhibition includes works on paper on loan from the collection housed at Chicago State University. Curator Juarez Hawkins, a native Chicago artist and educator, has included works primarily from three bodies of work: For Blacks Only, Reagonomics, and Red, White and Blue.
The works are raw and powerful. Walker offers a pointed critique of the government, the way it has ignored the struggling lower and working classes and those who prey on and profit from the deterioration of the community, namely pimps and drug dealers. Although the imagery is often dark and sometimes nightmarish, Walker praises community efforts to come together and embody the light needed to combat the darkness.
Bill Walker, Reaganomics #2, 1981
The role of the griot is that of the historian of a community, a speaker of truths who is respected for their vision. It is a most fitting title for this exhibition as we see the reflection of Chicago in the 70’s and 80’s through Walker’s eyes. His work paints a tale of complex corruption in its many forms as crime trickles down from the highest places into these poor communities.
At the gallery entrance hangs the earliest work included in the exhibition made in 1972. It is an untitled work in ink on paper. Three faces emerge from a dark, almost geometric form. Each face is in profile as their gaze follows an outstretched hand with pointed finger—pointing a finger at who is to blame.
Throughout the exhibition one can see the repetition of this gesture from one section to the next. In the piece, For Blacks Only #21, the pointed finger belongs to a pimp adorned with a diamond ring. He directs this gesture towards a crying woman on the ground as though to say, “Look what you made me do.” She hides her face in fear and shame.
Bill Walker, For Blacks Only #21 (no date)
Onward, we follow the pointing fingers and arrive at Reaganomics #2. We see a dinner table with three people seated around a meager meal of beans and bread. The figures on the right and left sides of the table have their heads bent in prayer while the center figure looks directly at the viewer with a middle finger raised. Above, the word “Reaganomics” is written across a banner of red, white and blue, but below there are figures with empty plates outstretched.
Around the corner, in an almost separate section of the gallery, are works from the project, Red, White and Blue. These works focus more on racial tension between whites and blacks and heroin addiction. Red, White, and Blue #15 takes place in a courtroom. There are no solid blocks of color, only outlines of figures in red, blue, and black ink that give the sense of flattened space.
In the center is a pimp wearing a crown, surrounded by addicts with hypodermic needles sticking out of their heads and large holes in their bodies. They are all pointing in unison towards a mass of people whose bodies are practically indistinguishable from one another. Again we see blame dolled out but it is coming from those who are partly responsible.
The works are displayed within mattes and black frames. The frames give the work a constrained feeling. Although HPAC is in itself an interesting space that works to break away from the typical white walls gallery model, the black frames and mattes behind glass reinforce just that model. The work is nevertheless powerful and speaks volumes through the glass used to preserve its message for future generations.
Walker’s imagery is chilling because it reflects a dark truth about our society. Viewing this work inspires reflection on the nation’s current state of affairs. What has changed? Are things worse? Will drugs, violence and racism still consume the public?
Now, another celebrity president is in office and, when the news is on, things feel even more hopeless. That hope can be swiftly reborn with a visit to Hyde Park Art Center. There, real power and light are cultivated to fight against corruption. Perhaps, with the flourish of local and public art, positivity can trickle up for a change.
Rebecca Memoli is a Chicago-based photographer and curator. She received her BFA from Pratt Institute and her MFA in Photography from Columbia College. Her work has been featured in several national and international group shows. She has curated seven group exhibitions and her latest curatorial project is The Feeling is Mutual.