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The Q4 Tribe

Quennect 4 Gallery, 2012. (Image credit: Amara Betty Martin.)

It’s hard to interview nomads when you’re trying to squeeze through dancing multitudes and libations are streaming forth and a fusion of hip hop and world music is blasting and you’re in the middle of an atmospherically lit space covered wall-to-wall in colorful murals with slogans ready to rouse revolution within you. Then again, the thought of interviewing the Quennect 4 gang didn’t really occur to me then, almost a year ago when I first stumbled upon MultiKulti. All I knew was that they were a great group of people to party with.

Since that time, however, I’ve found that if you’re even at least slightly active in Chicago’s underground art scene—particularly the scene that is, refreshingly, dominated by people of color—you’ve most likely come across someone or something with ties to Q4.

An independent art collaborative, Quennect 4 is a grassroots force to be reckoned with. Everything from organizing alternative festivals that help community organizations (their last Block Party, held this past weekend, benefited Street-Level Youth) to providing myriad platforms for artists and musicians to showcase their talents and passions (such as hosting an Open Mic series every last Thursday of the month), the Q4 Tribe dedicates itself to supporting local artists, activists, and educators and focuses on all things creative and socially conscious.

On one of those hot end-of-July days when the air itself seemed to cling to your skin and you broke into a sweat just strolling down a shaded Milwaukee, I sat with Amara Betty Martin in the backyard of RGB Lounge, the sounds of construction down the block and the L rumbling past overhead providing periodic moments of respite, allowing us to collect our thoughts and contemplate each other’s words as if sipping on cold beers—the quintessential Chicago summer afternoon.

I’ve run into Amara quite a bit within the DIY art world—each time when at least one of us was rather preoccupied—and was thrilled I finally had an opportunity to relax and chat with her. She’s everywhere and she does everything, yet she manages to be as good-natured and laid-back as everyone else involved with Q4. What follows is our conversation about the Tribe, social justice, art’s ability to connect the world, how to not hate / get sick of your fellow cooperative members, and more.

Quennect 4 Gallery, 2012. (Image credit: Amara Betty Martin.)

Jenny Lam: Tell me a little about yourself.

Amara Betty Martin: I’m from Chicago originally. My parents are from Brooklyn. My grandparents are from Puerto Rico. I’m a photographer. I do organizing for Quennect 4 Chicago. I do their promotions. I also work on their charity series, Unpacked. I organize events, like our Block Parties, the events we have at MultiKulti, and stuff like that.

JL: What brought you to Q4?

ABM: I met John [Ibarra], one of the creators of Q4, in high school, so I’ve known him for a long time. I saw what a beautiful thing he had, and he said jump on board, and for three years now, we’ve been going hard at it. [laughter] Q4’s been around for ten years, though, so it’s been a long-standing underground institution.

JL: Can you talk a little about the history of Q4 and how it came about?

ABM: Q4 started with about four dudes. John had a space, even before the original Q4, where he threw events, and so they found themselves in the space, built it up out of nothing, and through the people they were around, who were mostly social justice-oriented people, who were really into art, they’re like, “Let’s do something with this.” And so they infused music, art, social justice issues, into that space. It’s just a creation of an urban environment almost, an alternative to a gallery that you would go to downtown and other places—more casual and more of the people.

JL: One of the things that I love about Q4 is that focus on social activism. What do you think is art and the artist’s role in instigating social justice?

ABM: I think when you grow up in an urban environment, you’re already kind of inclined to being affected by these social issues, so when you’re growing up, and you find yourself surrounded by other creative people, you’re able to put that vision onto a canvas or into your words. I think that’s where all the social justice issues come from for the artists; they live it. So that way that message comes around.

I think that people putting that theme into their work is really important, because [while] I can appreciate art that comes from an inner place, that isn’t as literal and isn’t pushing a message onto you, sometimes you have to create art that says something a little more, that people can relate to, find inspiration from that they can use in everyday life.

Like if you’re feeling oppressed and you look at a piece of old work, even from the 1800s, where it’s depicting your people suffering, or the causers of oppression, people can relate to that, and find some connection to that. Instead of just being all in yourself, you can relate to other people’s suffering through art that way.

Quennect 4 Gallery, 2012. (Image credit: Amara Betty Martin.)

JL: Do you think art can have a direct effect in bringing about change?

ABM: For sure. Especially in Mexico when they had the Revolution and were becoming their own people, through art, they were able to find a unifying culture that connected them all. And it didn’t come from traditional Spanish art, and it wasn’t too much influenced by the Mayans and the Aztecs; they created a whole new art system that depicted what they were experiencing then. And people around the world were able to relate to the worker, to the immigrant, to the single mother, to the poor people.

Through art, everybody can find a universal connection. Everybody’s been hungry sometimes, or at least most people. [laughter] So I think that way people can connect to it.

JL: Especially now with the Occupy movement, which is approaching its first anniversary.

ABM: I know that Occupy had a traveling art exhibit. S2E was part of that. I think that’s important and that it’s nice that it drew attention to a lot of artists who were already doing social justice work, so it provided them with another platform on this bigger movement. But people have been doing this kind of work for years, and Occupy definitely provides a voice for those people, but the struggle has been going on, and will continue to go on after Occupy. But Occupy’s been a great platform. Mostly everybody can relate to it.

JL: When it comes to art that’s more political, you’ll see a lot more street / urban art rather than art that uses more traditional methods of creating. Do you think there’s a direct correlation?

ABM: I’d say there’s a direct correlation, because all these people who are doing street art—I’m not going to generalize—but a lot of them are urban people. And I think almost I appreciate street art more than going to a show, because you’ll be walking down the street, and all of a sudden you’ll be hit with a message, and sometimes it’s not always political—they can be cute little images—but some of them impact you when you pass by them.

You’ve passed by this one; on Milwaukee, at the underpass by the Aldi over there, there’s a poem about a woman who is going through immense stress, and it’s a positive, uplifting message, and that’s beautiful to see when you’re walking down the street, and you take a minute—you’ve got to take a minute—to absorb it, and I love that. It’s direct, to the people. You find it, you find it. Magic. [laughter]

Quennect 4 Gallery, 2012. (Image credit: Amara Betty Martin.)

JL: Exactly. You can’t get any more public than the street. It’s right there; anyone can access it.

ABM: It is, and people think of public art as commissioned, or sanctioned by the city or something like that, but you can forgo those methods and go into it yourself. [laughter] You’ve got to be careful at nighttime and you don’t want to get caught, but you can bring your message directly to the people without having to go through these other mediums. Just put your stuff out there.

And that’s what Q4 does. We’re not picky. You have a good message for your stuff, come through. Put your work up, get shown, and start your career.

JL: What are some of the specific things that Q4 does when it comes to art and music?

ABM: I’d say Q4 is really big on the music. It’s providing diverse music, whether that’s world music, or hip hop, or acoustic sets. We really want a lot of stuff in there, and, to tell you the truth, most creatives get down to most types of music. [laughter]

As far as the arts, we usually are more social justice-inclined, but lately we’ve been realizing we need to open up a little bit more. We’ve had a lot of different types of art come through. A lot of abstract work that doesn’t necessarily have a message.

I would say most of the people that we have involved have some connection with this arts community, which is a pretty big community. You have all these artists, whether they’re in Logan Square, whether they’re on the North Side, Wicker Park, Pilsen, that are able to just congregate at Q4, because they know, “This is where my people are,” and they enjoy it, and enjoy each other’s work. It’s important to support your local artists. Always.

JL: Totally. Q4 had a location change in recent years. What happened there?

ABM: Yeah, kind of two years ago, one and a half years ago. The original space, we lost that. The building was getting sold. I know John definitely had a little crisis [laughter], thinking, “Maybe I should just let this go, it’s been seven, eight years already…” We’ve founded MultiKulti, we have excellent partners over there in that space, and we’ve been able to recreate something that obviously isn’t the original, but still is pulling people in, and everybody’s pretty much followed us over there, to the new space.

Quennect 4 Gallery, 2012. (Image credit: Amara Betty Martin.)

JL: That’s great. Do you think the space’s surrounding neighborhood has a direct effect on it? Humboldt Park, where Q4 was originally located, is pretty different from Wicker Park, its current home.

ABM: Definitely. I can feel the difference. In Humboldt Park, you get a more urban, younger crowd. We definitely get a lot of people ending up in our [current] space that don’t necessarily know how they ended up there [laughter], people who wouldn’t normally be in Humboldt Park, so I guess that’s a good thing about the location change. It’s pretty central. Everybody comes to Wicker Park at least once in a while to do something, so people are over here anyway. It’s a good spot.

Hopefully, soon, we’ll have our own space. We’re a nomadic collective. We work here at RGB [Lounge]; we have a radio station and there are six Q4 people who work as artists here at RGB. We have MultiKulti, which is where we throw our events. So someday the hope is for our collective to have its own space that we can do whatever we want in and not have to compromise as much. [laughter]

JL: So kind of like your own headquarters where you can do everything instead of having to branch out?

ABM: Exactly. [In addition to the radio station], we have a screen printing component, we have photographers, we have painters… If we have our own spot where we can congregate and do business, kind of like what RGB does, but that would belong to us, that would be the dream! [laughter]

JL: There’s no doubt in my mind that you’ll get there, because Q4 has such a wide art network, from what I’ve seen. It’s like a web.

ABM: Everybody’s connected somehow. If someone hasn’t been to Q4, you probably know eight people from Q4, eight people from RGB, and everybody through some form of art, which is usually how we’re all able to come together. We’re able to meet each other and grow the arts community.

Man, that’s the most beautiful thing about Q4 to me. You’re able to meet so many like-minded people that it just reinforces everything that you felt about yourself and what you’re capable of doing, because you see other artists, and you’re able to be like, “OK. I got this.” [laughter] “And if I don’t got it, then I have a community to give me a little push, and I’ll get there.”

It gives me shivers inside. A lot of people don’t have an outlet like that. They don’t have a co-op or gallery space. They don’t have a place to have these events that they wish they could throw or put art up on the walls. Really, what we do is provide people with a platform. Artists come through to play, hang up work, chill, meet people… That’s really what we’re trying to do.

Quennect 4 Gallery, 2012. (Image credit: Amara Betty Martin.)

JL: Are there any exciting new developments in the future for Q4?

ABM: I think the most exciting thing we’re doing right now is the radio station. We’re working hardest on that, trying to fill all the programming. Hopefully have it someday on 24-hour basis. We have seven programs now. That’s the biggest thing we’re working on, besides the events that we’re consistently throwing and putting together.

JL: Where can people listen to the radio station?

ABM: It’s on our website, with a weird spelling of Q4. [laughter] It’s que4.org. You can stream it off Ustream there. We have an antenna that’s being worked on right now, but it goes all over Wicker Park. As we raise money, hopefully we’ll be able to expand it to Pilsen, Logan Square, where our people are. [laughter]

JL: Your fan base!

ABM: But everybody’s got internet some way or another.

JL: What about for you personally?

ABM: For me personally, I’m kind of excited that I’m actually amassing some money to start framing stuff, so hopefully this year I might be able to put myself in some shows. I’m also trying to find more time to work on my own stuff, because when you’re facilitating other artists all the time, you’re sometimes not using your own creative energy. So I definitely want to try to set some time aside for my personal work, [like] photography and graphic design.

JL: Yeah, because you do so many things! You have your vintage store…

ABM: I do! Which is time-consuming too. A lot of time-consuming things! [laughter] But I kind of like being busy. But again, sometimes I want to lock myself in my room and just play around with my paints for hours. But I love what I do. It’s about finding balance, which is how it is for everything.

Quennect 4 Gallery, 2011. (Image credit: Jenny Lam.)

JL: What’s Q4’s secret to sticking together for such a long time?

ABM: I don’t know about other co-ops, but you get past that friend relationship and then it’s almost like a family relationship. When you work in a co-op, you see these people every day, you work with them all the time. When you make lasting relationships like that, if your visions are the same, you can keep that going for a long time. A lot of times, people change, they don’t feel that connected, or they just want to branch off and do their own thing. So the fact that all of us have been friends for so long and continue working towards the same goal for so long? That’s awesome.

JL: That’s so rare too!

ABM: It is! And I’m not saying that we don’t fight sometimes, like “Oh my god, I hate you, I’ve seen you four days in a row right now, and I’m about to be sitting at MultiKulti with you right now for another twelve… Get out of my face!” But in the end, it’s all love. [laughter]

I think the older you get, you’re just going to have more quality relationships and you relate better to people. Because you learn to be like “OK, I know you’re like this, but I’ll take this part for all the rest of it.” [pause] “Every once in a while I’m going to call you out on those things, but I’ll still love you and we’ll still be friends.” [laughter]

For more information about Quennect 4, visit http://que4.org.

Jenny Lam tweets at @TheJennyLam and blogs at Artists on the Lam.

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