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The Future’s Past: Revisiting the Bronzeville Community // Part II

The Future’s Past, curated by Tempestt Hazel, co-founder and co-executive director of Sixty Inches From Center, is a project initiated on behalf of a fellowship that she received from the Black Metropolis Consortium (BMRC).

This exhibition is based on a year’s worth of intensive research through a variety of archives from partnering institutions and other found sources. The culmination of this research is a selection of public window installations and works in progress by Chicago artists Stephen Flemister, Krista Franklin and Amanda Williams, which demonstrate a piece of the history of Chicago’s Black Metropolis.

Below is an interview between curator, Tempestt Hazel and myself.

Tempestt Hazel

Nicolette Caldwell: Where did your inspiration come from for this project and when did you actually start developing the idea? Did it come about when you decided to put a proposal together for the fellowship with The Black Metropolis Consortium (BMRC) or was this something that you had been working on for much longer?

Tempestt Hazel: The inspiration for this project came from a few different things.  First, it was finding out a week before the deadline about the Black Metropolis Research Consortium and the fellowship that they offered to scholars, artists and curators.  Then, after looking at the fellowship, I found myself wondering how I had never heard of this organization before that moment, especially since I make an effort to research and know about organizations that focus on archival efforts—especially concerning my neighborhood.

When approaching the fellowship I wanted to propose something that could take several different forms in the future, would allow me to sift through the archives, would bring more awareness to the archives in order to promote its use, and would bring these materials to a younger generation who may not be as aware of Bronzeville’s history as the older generations.  Since the initial idea it has transformed, adapted and evolved from there.  The Future’s Past is a pilot.  I hope to continue to highlight the history of other locations in the South Side of Chicago through projects similar to this one.

NC: What is The Black Metropolis Consortium (BMRC) and who are the partnering institutions? How long has this organization been around and what is their purpose/function?

TH: The BMRC is a cooperative of archives in Chicago that come together to discuss the maintenance and organization of archival materials as they relate to Black people in Chicago.  Their mission verbatim is to make “broadly accessible its members’ holdings of materials that document African American and African diasporic culture, history, and politics, with a specific focus on materials relating to Chicago.”  They have been around for about 5 or 6 years, I believe.  The member institutions include Columbia College Chicago, Chicago History Museum, Chicago Public Library, Chicago State University, Dominican University, DuSable Museum of African American History, Illinois Institute of Technology, Kennedy King College, Loyola University Chicago, Northwestern University, Roosevelt University, University of Chicago, University of Illinois-Chicago.

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NC: Why did you decide to propose your idea to the BMRC? Did you propose it to anyone else?

TH: Long story short…I’m a big nerd.  I get a kick out of being in those archives and handling artifacts from decades before my parents were even born.  And, like the work we do for Sixty, it gives me the chance to connect with the people at the front lines of the things that are central to my interests—historians, musicians, journalists, artists, activists.

I proposed my idea to only the BMRC because ultimately the shape of my project depended highly on the information I had access to and I wanted it to be reflective of the BMRC.  In the beginning I limited myself to their holdings only, which would have told a very specific story.  I later allowed myself to open up to more modern forms of research using open Internet searches as well as contacting those who know the stories first-hand and hold private archives of their own.

NC: When you actually initiated the project what was the process like from beginning to end? What was the research like? What archives did you look through?

TH: This project was, by far, the most complex that I’ve ever done.  From the initial proposal to the final products, it has changed shape several times due to things like budget limitations and logistics. It started off as something simple—projections of images from the archives on historic buildings that would be connected to a webpage telling you more about the BMRC archives.  Very much tapping into the type of affect and presence that work by artists like JR makes on the surrounding environment, but using the technology that museums are starting to tap into—Philadelphia’s Museum Without Walls, for instance.

Then, as I told more people about how I wanted to do this and incorporate technology, things just exploded.  Once I spoke to Eastlake Management and Development Corp. and Eileen Rhodes of Blanc Gallery, I was not only offered access to five historic locations along King Drive, but I was given the chance to curate a collaborative exhibition with Amanda Williams, Stephen Flemister and Krista Franklin.  The time spent with them in the gallery was incredible and inspiring. The gallery was basically a studio space for three weeks until literally hours before the opening reception.

The research was wonderful.  I spent most of my time at the Vivian G. Harsh Collection and the Center for Black Music Research.  Then I spent a lot of time doing interviews with well-known historians of the area.  Timuel Black, Conrad Worrill, Eddie Read, Lydia Davis Eady, and Harold Lucas—quite a few people opened their personal archives and memories to me.  Besides working with the artists, that was my favorite part.

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NC: What did you discover that you might not have known before?

TH: I discovered that people are very protective of archives.  While the BMRC has a mission of making them accessible, that doesn’t always happen.

I also found out that the history of Bronzeville is an incredibly dynamic and intertwined one that I’ve only scratched the surface of.  Five locations that I thought were primarily connected through South Parkway, the street they were located on turned out to all be connected on a much deeper level than that through people, music, events, businesses and organizations.

NC: This is a large project. Did you run into any difficulties along the way? What were those like and how did you resolve them?

TH: The biggest difficulty in something this size is coordinating everything and keeping track of things as they happen—especially when I was working a job, remaining very active with Sixty and friends of mine were having their openings and events all the time.

Adapting and adjusting when things don’t go as you originally planned and you need to go back to the drawing board was another one of the challenges.  There were points when I had to let things go and I usually have a really hard time with that.

Another challenge was trying to bring together different generations of artists, students, educators and historians together under one roof.  I had an artist talk to have conversations about artistic practice, history and education.  I also had an intergenerational dialogue to explore how history is understood by students, artists and elders, then finding ways to create bridges between these groups and ideas.   Ultimately, working through these challenges was rewarding because I made connections with two arts high schools in Bronzeville (Little Black Pearl Options Laboratory School and ChiArts) and I will be working with them on future projects.

NC: Besides the installation at Blanc Gallery, what was the idea behind the window installations? How are those different? What was the selection process like for those in comparison to the gallery?

TH: The installations are different from the work in the gallery but they are meant to work along with the gallery space.   Covering those windows with material I was pulling from the archives was my way of working with the BMRC towards their mission of accessibility.  The same people who come into the gallery may not be the same people walking past the Supreme Life building or down 47th street.  The installations in combination with the exhibition is my way to provoke the curiosity in a variety of audiences.

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NC: Regarding the trolley. That is awesome. Any comments?

TH: I like trolleys.  They’re fun.  And, Eileen of Blanc Gallery quickly reminded me that not everyone is going to walk twelve blocks down King Drive or ride their bike past the installations like I would.  So, a trolley was the solution.

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NC: Out of the many art exhibitions I have seen, this one was successfully interactive. Could you explain more about those qualities of the show?

The show is interactive in two main ways.  First, I built a website accessed through QR Codes that gives a glimpse into the research I’ve done, the people I’ve spoken to and the places where some of the archival information can be found digitally or analog.

Second, at the gallery there is a wall where I invite people to write out their own piece of the story on post-its and add it to a wall that holds some of the images and items I found during my research.   We’ve gotten several dozen posts added to the wall so far. I haven’t figured out exactly what I will do with them, but I’m looking forward to reading them all.  There was one on there from someone born in Bronzeville in1938.  I wish I could have met or spoken with that person.

NC: You mentioned in the press release that this is a pilot? Pie in the sky, what do you hope this project turns into?

Pie in the sky?  I would really like for this to be something that I could package and people would take and adapt to their own communities—whether that’s locally, nationally or internationally.  I think the idea of drawing a bridge between the past, present and future is something that doesn’t just resonate with Chicago.  Globally everyone should be thinking about how future generations will handle and preserve history and the story they would like to tell.

If I were to bring the pie down to ground level, I’d say that I would like to see this project happen throughout the South Side of Chicago in different areas.  The richness of King Drive is only a drop in the bucket.  This project could go on forever with how much information is out there.

For more information about The Future’s Past Project visit www.thefuturespastchicago.wordpress.com.

To see more images from this project visit The Future’s Past: Revisiting the Bronzeville Community Part I.

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