Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Washington Park, Chicago

August 31, 2013

Today, for the first time ever, I visited Washington Park, a part of Chicago statistically regarded as one of the most dangerous areas in the United States and consistently plagued by violent crime.  Today was different.  I'm very pleased to report that I just arrived home from a fun day there.  This weekend, Washington Park hosted the African Festival of Art, which was, for me, a rare chance to visit and learn about the art and history behind the community in Washington Park.  The community has more to offer than violence, and this day provided me with an exciting way to delve into the culture through the lens of the artists.  I went first to the DuSable Museum and then to the African Festival of Art.  As a University of Chicago student in Hyde Park, I have always been curious about life in the neighboring Washington Park, and this event offered me a safe opportunity to check it out.

DuSable Museum
At the DuSable Museum, I was interested to note the presentation of so many topics in African American history.  The self-guided tour began with a history of life during slavery and mentioned key people involved in the abolitionist movement, such as Sojourner Truth.  One particular wood carving in the room shocked visitors with a scene from this country's past by portraying the dehumanizing sale of a slave.  Previously, I visited the Old Slave Mart Museum in Charleston, South Carolina where I was deeply disturbed to learn about the purchasing process and that there was a particular price list based on features like age, gender, skills, and behavior.  This piece, in showing both a sale and a road to freedom, reminded me of the history I learned about in Charleston last summer.

We continued on to a room with an exhibit called "Africa Speaks," which showed masks, beaded jewelry, and crafts from different groups of people around the African continent.  Learning about the various indigenous groups, such as the Zulu tribe, took me back to my elementary school days when I learned about the different tribes of Native Americans and their art, work, living, and food traditions.  I particularly enjoyed viewing the masks and wondered if they were heavy to wear and what sorts of occasions warranted wearing such masks.  Looking at the jewelry, I was amazed by the intricate beadwork and saw many similarities with popular, modern, beaded jewelry.

DuSable Museum
Leaving the "Africa Speaks" room, we entered a room that portrayed the story of Harold Washington, the first black mayor of Chicago, and his political career.  It took until 1982 before Chicago elected a black mayor, and even then, the exhibit noted that Harold Washington's proposals were consistently met with much opposition from other politicians, regardless of the substance of the proposal.  Initially, I thought about how petty those politicians acted in considering the presenter more than the substance of his presentation in making their decision.  One short moment later, however, it occurred to me that these types of actions still litter our political system today.

DuSable Museum
Also on that floor of the DuSable Museum is an exhibit of art by Charly Palmer.  Palmer creates contemporary works of art to describe the black experience through United States history.  His work uses raised textures from geometric shapes and pieces of fabric or paper, and displays poignant images such as a black person in chains kneeling in front of the Lincoln Memorial.  His work often carries a year or two years, for example 1964 and 2013, perhaps suggesting that these problems still persist.

One final exhibit we visited, perhaps the most heart-wrenching, was a fence covered by police tape.  On the fence on hanging tags, museum visitors wrote names of family members and friends who had been killed recently by gun violence in the Chicagoland area.  A memorial tag that caught my eye was written by a younger sibling to a late, older sibling, promising that the writer would do everything possible to follow in the footsteps and example of the deceased sibling.  Some guests left teddy bears or small flowers by the fence.  Seeing the density of name tags hanging on the fences underscores the urgent problem Chicago still has with gun violence.

For the second part of the day, we went to visit the African Festival of Art in the middle of the park.  Admission was $20, or $10 if you bought tickets in advance.  The festival was fenced in for safety and heavily patrolled by police.  Inside the fence, I met vendors from many different African countries, as well as a few from the United States.  Crafts and art for sale ranged from painted leather bracelets to woven baskets to intricately patterned fabrics to copies of Michael Kors bags.

African Festival of Art
Most of the vendors were excited to share their work, explain where the art was from, and how it was made.  One of our first stops was to examine a booth selling colorful, woven baskets.  I learned that these baskets, often woven with blocks of color or striped patterns, can be used as containers or stools, or even to hold water if the weaving is tight enough.  While the baskets we bought were from west Africa, it seems that similar basket weaving traditions arrived long ago in the United States.  Last summer in Charleston, I purchased a sweetgrass basket made by Louise Jefferson.  She explained to me that basket weaving is an African tradition that came to the USA via slave ships in the 1800s, and that today weavers in Charleston honor their tradition and history by continuing to weave twisting designs ornamented with handles and bundles of dried flowers.
Woven Basket at the African Festival of Art
Continuing to make our way through the fair, we came across a book called I Love my Hair.  Smiling at this, I noted how perfect this book is for anyone with difficult hair, or really any type of hair at all.  I won't pretend to know how to style traditional African-textured hair, but I did grow up with extremely curly hair (that has since straightened out a lot) that was full of frizz in every direction.  For my lack of ability to deal with the curly mess, I have taken to straightening my hair.  My family has very textured curly hair (not smooth like mine), and my sister used to use hair products designed for African-textured hair.  We've found some relief in using the Ouidad hair products, but will never have easy, silky hair without some serious work behind it.  The book basically shows many different hair styles you can create with African-textured hair and shows a character who loves all of them from an Afro to cornrows and everywhere in between.

As the day wound to a close, my mom and I chatted a bit with a few last vendors, spotted a Walgreens we recognized, hopped into the car, and chatted about our new baskets on the way home.

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