Tonika Johnson’s Folded Map at the Loyola Museum of Art closes Saturday, October 20, 2018

Interview and photo essay by Lise McKean

Tonika Johnson with installation view of Folded Map

LM: Today we’re going to be talking about Natasha’s role as curator at LUMA and Tonika’s current exhibition, Folded Map. Natasha, could you tell us about your pre-LUMA background before moving on to your work here as at curator at LUMA.

NR: My master’s degree is in art history with a focus on history of photography. That’s one of the reasons I love working with photographers. Then I decided to get my PhD from Indiana University in Communication and Culture and American Studies.

I ended up working at the art museum in Bloomington for three years when I was ABD. I started working there under a grant that was funded by the Mellon Foundation and was trained by a really wonderful arts educator to be a curator of academic programs. Mellon was funding a new initiative trying to bridge the disconnect that often happens between university art museums and the rest of campus. I was trained to work closely with the faculty, students and student groups. I wasn’t planning to work in museums before that. I was going to be a professor, but then I fell in love with this work. Connecting people across disciplines with art. It was so enriching to work with chemistry professors, art historians, anthropologists…

LM: I imagine it would take a lot of creativity and imagination to reach out to people across all those disciplines. For example, what’s your pitch to a chemistry professor?

NR:  It was so much fun because it forces you to be creative and think outside the box. I got a job at Kenyon College before I finished my PhD to be the curator of academic programs at the gallery there. That was a really great experience working in a contemporary art gallery. I got to work on some amazing shows. We showed Ragnar Kjartansson, Carrie Mae Weems, and William Kentridge. I had the opportunity to work with Kenyon professors on curating a material culture exhibition on Gullah culture and related programming. Then I had to leave that position to finish my dissertation.

LM: It’s hard to do both at one time.

NR: It is. I was also interested in returning to Chicago. I took nine months out, finished the dissertation, defended, graduated and then started this job two weeks after graduating.

Natasha Ritsma, LUMA curator

LM: What about your dissertation? What was it about?

NR: My focus in grad school was on documentary films and films on art. I became really interested in the history of how people learned about art on celluloid after World War II. I looked at how these films on art were made, circulated and then how they were used in schools, because at that time, it was a new technology. I did many interviews, archival work, and watched as many of these films that I could get my hands on in 16mm.

LM: It also seems to connect well with the idea of connecting art with academic programs. I imagine there were pedagogic elements in those films. It could give you some ideas of directions to go or to avoid.

NR:  Right. Both. A lot of the films were very didactic. It’s a really interesting history and it was a lot of fun to research. Then I started at LUMA, as I mentioned, right after finishing the dissertation and met Tonika about a year after starting here. I’m about to start my third year at LUMA. I started in January 2016. The chief curator left the month I started and shortly thereafter the director left, a position which hasn’t been filled yet. The positive side to this is that I have had a lot of agency in being able to pick shows that I feel really passionate about. That’s how Tonika and I were able to work together, and put together TWO shows.

TJ: You made a call.

NR: If we had a director maybe they wouldn’t have let me do that and might have said, “One show is enough.”

LM: Tonika, your first show, Everyday Englewood, really struck me because I have a connection with Englewood through work I’ve done over the years with community groups there and through Ernest Dawkins, who organizes the musicians’ residency at Hamilton Park and the Englewood Jazz Festival. The vitality of your photos is powerful. There’s also tenderness in the photos, a feeling that they were taken by someone who’s connected to who and what the photos are showing. Would you tell us how that first exhibition came to LUMA, and then we can make our way to Folded Map.

TJ: Well, there’s two versions of how Everyday Englewood happened.

LM: Let’s hear both.

From Tonika Johnson’s, Everyday Englewood series.

TJ: When I heard in Natasha’s version, I thought, “Oh my gosh, it’s so funny.” I had my first real gallery exhibition at Rootwork Gallery in February of 2017.

LM: Was it after you had the photography fellowship?

TJ: The timeline is this: I have been documenting my neighborhood for a long time through the community work that I was already doing. In 2016, a few of my artist, mentor/friends who I call my big sisters in art said to me that with the political climate and me always complaining about how not only Chicago is treated unfairly and the presidential campaign, but also about Englewood, “You really should do something with your photography because you just don’t do anything with it.”

They encouraged me to apply to see if I could get some exhibitions. I slowly went to the Chicago Artists Resource website and I saw a posting for an exhibition at the Harold Washington Library. So I submitted for that. Then I submitted for the Chicago Culture Center’s 50×50 exhibition, where a person from a neighborhood could submit work. I was lucky enough to actually get accepted into those exhibition spaces. It was very small, but it was my first time. It wouldn’t have happened if my friends didn’t encourage me.

LM: Encouragement is important but it wouldn’t get you shows if you didn’t have work that’s as strong as it is.

TJ: Yeah, but I didn’t view it that way at the time. Again, my friends told me, “Apply for this DCASE individual arts grant.”  So I did and I received it. That got the attention of a new curator who was working for the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. Then, Tracy Hall, who is the owner of Rootwork Gallery, invited me to have an exhibition there, because I had visited her gallery. I fell in love with it and I was like, “Oh my gosh, I would love to have my work here.” She was like, “Okay, let me see your work.”

All of those things together in addition to this large community campaign that we were doing in Englewood—to have a billboard campaign where we rented five billboards in Englewood over the course of nine to ten months. The billboards had photography and slogans like “I am Englewood.” A lot of the photography was mine. The billboard campaign was my community’s response to the frustration, “Chicago is getting a bad rap. Englewood is getting a bad rap. Let’s just do something about it.”

Englewood Billboard project. Photo by Tonika Johnson.

I got those exhibitions and then the billboard campaign started getting popular. Media coverage started. In the midst of all of that, I get an email from some Loyola students who heard about all of this and they had a class assignment. They wrote, “We would love if we could interview you. We heard about your recent exhibitions and you’re part of this billboard campaign.” I thought, “Okay. That’s great.” About eight Loyola students interviewed me. They also wanted to purchase some of my prints to show with their presentation. They wanted to purchase eight or ten. I told them, “Okay, just give me $100 and I’ll ship them to you.” They sent me the video footage of our interview. Then they sent me a follow up email saying, “Oh, everyone loved your photos. Thank you so much. I believe we’re going to get a great grade.”

The last email from them with the update on their presentation was a few months before I got a call or email from Natasha and wanting to talk to me. Of course, when I see your email I think, “Loyola University Museum of Art. What? A museum? It’s interested?” It wasn’t until we actually met that she told me how she found out about me.

Photo from Tonika Johnson’s Everyday Englewood series.

NR: It’s a good story. One of my interns at the time, Amanda Malstrom, was taking a class with Dr Robert Morrison in the Psychology department at Loyola. Before going into academia, Dr. Morrison had a career in the arts and now teaches a very popular honors class called the Psychology of Creativity. Some students in his class learned about Tonika’s work and did a presentation on it. The whole classes loved the presentation and Dr. Morrison instructed Amanda to let me know about it. He told Amanda, “Natasha needs to contact this artist and needs to look at her work. This could be great for LUMA.”

NR: Thanks to him. Amanda got me Tonika’s information. I went to her website, looked up her work and I was just blown away. My reaction was: “Wow. This is amazing. These photographers are beautiful.” Then I just emailed her “Hi. I’m from LUMA. Do you want to get coffee?”

We had a conversation. She told me about Everyday Englewood, these were the photos I saw on her website and thought would be a great for LUMA. Beautiful portraits. I remember at the very end of our meeting she started telling me, “Well, there’s this other project that I’m even more excited about…”

She started telling me about Folded Map and said, “I’m really interested in looking at corresponding addresses between the North and the South Side. That’s when we realized that Loyola University in Rogers Park is quite literally Englewood’s map twin. People that are students, faculty, staff at Loyola University are the corresponding map twins for many Englewood addresses. We both got excited and realized, “Oh, this is such a good match. We could bring two communities together and really start this conversation.” She had told me about how she had started photographing the houses. Had you photographed Wade and Nanette yet?

TJ: I was doing them. The reason I even told her about Folded Map is because by the time we had a meeting, I was a fellow at City Bureau. That’s when I started working on Folded Map. I was two months in because I went part-time at my job so I could work on Folded Map with City Bureau. One, they’re great and they had resources that I knew I was going to need. I was ready to just get this idea out of my head.

LM: I’d love to hear the backstory on picking the addresses. I get the twinning part, but there’s a lot of addresses out there. Did you knock on doors? Did you start in Englewood?

Tonika Johnson, Folded Map installation view.

TJ: I started in Englewood because I knew the streets that went all the way North and how far North they went, because I used to live up there. I just pick the exact streets and then how far South that I wanted to focus on based on how far those specific streets went up North. I knew that a lot of the addresses were mirroring each other at 5500 North, 5500 South to basically 6900 North.

Then it was just mapping and googling and mapping, and then going to visit to see, “Okay, how does it look visually?” Then also trying to make sure that the corresponding Englewood address, that all of them weren’t just vacant lots, because a lot of the addresses that are in Englewood are in West Englewood, which has a lot of homes, but they also have a lot of vacant lots. I didn’t want to just pair a whole bunch of North Side homes with vacant lots. When I had already identified the Englewood Street, I started moving towards identifying the residents.

LM: As an ethnographer, someone who goes out and talks to people and tries to get people to talk to me, I’m curious about your experiences approaching people about your project.

TJ: City Bureau is a civic journalism lab. They launched their first photography fellowship. They primarily work with journalists and reporters. I pretty much anticipated that I was just going to photograph address pairs. I thought that’s strong enough. When I was photographing the addresses, it was residents’ homes. They started coming out talking to me, which makes sense, because I’m photographing their house. But I wasn’t ready to start engaging with people. Because, one, it’s a weird concept, and then I thought, “Oh, I’m going to have to talk and even explain it.” I just started doing that with Wade’s wife, Jennifer, who was the first resident in Edgewater that I’ve told you about it. She got it and she understood. She was really excited about it.

She invited me to their block club party the next weekend. That’s how I started talking to residents. I went back to City Bureau and told them, “She invited me to come to their block party and I will possibly meet other residents.” They told me, “You have to be prepared to talk to them. You need to take some audio.” I really didn’t want to do that. But they taught me how to use the audio. I went and I started talking to people and telling them about the project. They were so interested that I sat on the front porch of Wade and Jennifer’s house and took turns recording people.

Meeting of Folded Map address twins. Photo by Tonika Johnson.

LM: So you started by explaining your project and hearing what they thought about it?

TJ: It was explaining the project and me kind of off the cuff asking them questions based off of their interest level. I took that material back to City Bureau and they told me, “You’re focusing on all of the systemic stuff, so let’s come up with clear cut questions.” That is how I figured out what questions I wanted to ask because I had that initial test run.

LM: You took a very organic community participatory research approach, where you go in, you talk to people.

TJ: Oh, it’s the term for it.

LM: Yes, much of the work that I did in the community was participatory research. The things that we researched came out of concerns of the community that they needed investigated and documented in a systematic way. Often, we would find out the concerns through ongoing conversations. Then we’d go back and formulate the specific questions to find out more about specific concerns.

TJ: I need to be an anthropologist. I want to go to school to be an anthropologist.

LM: It sounds like you have a natural inclination for it. How did it go in Englewood when you were asking to meet with people?

TJ: That went fine because I’m from there and I knew people that lived on those blocks. Then if I didn’t know anyone in the exact address that I wanted to use, I knew someone else who knew somebody. That was a lot easier, especially since I do a lot of community work in Englewood. They kind of know that, “Oh, she also does photography.”

LM: Some people might have been aware of your billboard project.

TJ: Exactly. Since my training is in photojournalism, I kept in touch with people that I photographed and I would also get their information. I had a nice network of people who knew, “She’s going to be asking something crazy or interesting.” I had those people engaged already. But when I said, “You’ll have them come over to your house. Your map twin is going to come visit you,” their response was, “You want me to do what?” They thought it was the wildest thing.

LM: The meeting of map twins in the exhibition’s video is very relaxed, cordial exchange. Is the video showing the first time they met.

TJ: With Nanette and Wade, I only had audio at their first meeting. Their exchange was so powerful and I hated I didn’t get it on video. That’s when I knew that I needed video for the first meeting. Prior to the address twins meeting, I had already asked each of the participants those same questions. That way I knew they won’t be surprised by the questions and are comfortable with them. The only thing I didn’t know is their response to each other and whether they would change their answers. I was interested to see their interaction around answering those same questions. Now they’d be answering them while sitting with someone who is going to give the opposite answer.

Meeting of Folded Map address twins. Photo by Tonika Johnson.

LM: I think the video is also a testament to how comfortable they felt with you personally. Obviously, there’s a certain openness given that the people agreed to participate. Still, they didn’t seem to have the kind of discomfort or awkwardness that black and white strangers from the other end of the city might have.

TJ: Yes, they’re already invested in this larger issue. There also was some relationship building. With some I went to their house and sat with them and talked to them about the project. To get to that comfort level, I had to treat people like they were my family.

LM: I think in this time when people are talking about deterioration of civic and civil conservation, it’s important to see people talk together about their lived differences. Natasha, you spoke about doing the outreach on the academic level to different disciplines. How do you find your way past the closed door? Outreach takes a certain kind of patience and kind of humility.

TJ: Natasha is very patient.

NR: What I really love about this show how it connects to so many departments. When I’m interested in a show I look for an interdisciplinary reach. I was hoping that many different disciplines from around the university would be interested in this. With Tonika’s guidance and dedication to this, it’s just been amazing. We have an event co-sponsored by the Writing Department and Center for Urban Learning and Research. Several theology classes came in for the exhibition, because they’re saying that this exhibition exemplifies the Jesuit mission of Loyola University. Being able to talk through difference and have conservations—bringing people together to tackle uncomfortable and difficult topics that need to be addressed. That’s what Folded Map has done in an amazing way

LM: Some Loyola students are from here in Chicago. Some aren’t, but it’s where they live now. This is their city. It’s not something far away. It’s here. There’s going to be one or the other address in each pair that they’ll identify with more. By the pair of addresses, it gives both sides of racial segregation at once.

TJ: Exactly. That’s how my first map twin she explained to her map twins up North. She said that it felt like they didn’t view her as the victim. That she was having a real conversation. That her twins were truly listening and not reducing her to being a victim or someone to sorry for. She said she appreciated that.

NR: Didn’t you say they’re also friends now?

LM: Their friendship also shows a hidden cost of segregation. People don’t get to know each other, to make friends. The mixing doesn’t happen. It’s a wonderful demonstration by positive example of what is lost. And you can’t quantify that. Measurement and quantitative analysis are important but there’s so much in life that is important and immeasurable. Folded Map shows us how art can bring to light something immeasurable and ignored.

TJ: Marisa Novara from the Metropolitan Planning Council, who spoke about that too when referring to a recent study on the cost of segregation in Chicago.  She said that she was personally interested in Folded Map because represents what can’t be captured in the study.

Tonika Johnson, Folded Map installation view.

LM: This brings us to the connection between art and activism. Natasha, your vision as a curator seems be leading LUMA in that direction. We’re inundated with quantitative information all the time. From student test scores to eligibility for a bank loan. Everything seems to be quantified, run through algorithms—without which it’s vanished into nonexistence. The arts can question the tyranny of quantification. The aesthetic experience of art brings to awareness other modes of being and values.

NR: Since starting at Loyola I’ve been really influenced by the Jesuit model of focusing on social justice, of trying to connect multiple communities and have difficult conversations. I’ve worked at many universities, but a Jesuit school was something new. Loyola’s president just sent a campus wide email stating, “Together, we’re educating students to challenge boundaries, work across social and political divides, and become engaged citizens of the world.” That’s one of the core goals: focusing on dialogue, reflection, and action. I think that’s something we can connect with at the museum by selecting art and artists to promote and showcase at LUMA. We’ve been so lucky to be able to work with Tonika.

TJ: It’s so funny that Loyola’s mission is very similar to RAGE’s mission, Resident Association of Greater Englewood: connect, build, and action. That’s the same three words.

NR: That must have been one of the reasons it felt such an organic connection to work together on this.

LM: You’re making your task of reaching out to the faculty much easier by bringing this kind of art into the galleries. They’re going to see the connection, because you’re both operating within Loyola’s shared values.

NR: Exactly. I have to say for this exhibition, I did a bit of outreach, but it’s really been responding to professors reaching out to me, which is new and I love it and I hope that continues. Just so many people have been interested in this project, whether bringing in classes or groups or using it as part of a class project. Social justice is really deeply integrated into the university as a whole. At the Water Tower campus alone, the law school focuses on it, the business school even has classes on how to incorporate social justice into business practices. The school of social work is also very deeply involved.

We also bring in artists from around the world when possible. Right now, we have Following the Box, an exhibition where we’re showing ten contemporary artists from West Bengal. It’s also on view at LUMA until October 20, 2018.

TJ: That’s also a folding of the map. I was deeply inspired by Following the Box. I definitely want to even replicate that by youth in Englewood do a reflection on the old photos of Chicago, the ones that I projected.

LM: Tell me a little bit about the project with the youth.

TJ: I formulated that because it’s been my dream to do a large-scale video projection in my neighborhood in Englewood. My friend, the  artist and urban planner, Paola Aguirre of Boarderless Studio who created the map and the interactive mapping feature of Folded Map, also assisted me in making my pop-up projection dream come true. She secured the projector, which was  the primary barrier, because I knew that I would be able to get people out to it at a specific site in Englewood. We not only included contemporary work by black photographers in Chicago, including some of my work, we also partnered with the  archivist Renata Charlise, who’s created Blvck Vrchives, an archive of visual narratives from across the African diaspora.

I thought it would be great to have contemporary photography and old Chicago, black Chicago, South Side neighborhoods, West Side neighborhoods. Then we added the other component and had people submit their old family photos from back in the day in Englewood—and then we projected all of it.

LM: So instead of creating geographical pairs, your second project creates time-based pairs, comparing the historical with the contemporary of both people and the places of Englewood.

TJ: We chose the projection site at 63rd and Justine because the wall was clean and fresh since it was a new wall. It was a new vacant lot. A historic building that had a bank that was abandoned for a couple of decades had just been demolished. We also chose that site because people were saying, “It’s just weird. That building is gone now.” We had information about the building at the video projection, and people’s response to it made me think about Following the Box. People love seeing the old photos. I’m talking about the guys that hang out at the barbershop. They were coming out of the barber shop to look at the photos. I took pictures of that, because it’s hilarious. It’s not what anybody would expect. The guy with a baseball cap that works at the barbershop, he’s looking at old photos of black Chicago. I thought, “I want to know what people think when they see these.”

LM: Have you seen the display at the Cultural Center on the first floor with the historic photos and posters from Bronzeville jazz clubs? It’s very compelling.

TJ: There’s something about seeing old photos of a place that either you currently live in or that you have known. I’m learning that people are even more fascinated by that than I ever would have thought in this day of age of selfies and everything. People really do like looking at old photos.

Englewood Projection Party

LM: I think they can open up the imagination. You’re looking at this person or a place in the photo and wondering, “What was it really like then?” How different and how similar it might have been. When you were talking about your projection project and the bank that was down and I couldn’t help but think of the Stony Island Arts Bank. Listening to what you’ve accomplished and have yet to accomplish, I’m thinking there must be another bank that needs to be saved.

TJ: Funny you mention that, because there’s a building. There is a building. In Englewood because there are so many vacant spaces and not enough businesses and amenities, people are using the Park District buildings a lot for personal gathering spaces—when they want to have a baby shower, stuff like that. If you don’t want to have it at your house, it’s really hard to find where to have it. It’s a severe deficit. We need a communal space that’s nice and beautiful that people can rent. I was looking at an one old building An architect friend said it was built in 1918. It’s a little house and set far back on the lot. It’s basically a ridiculously huge front yard, because apparently this house must have been attached to some other bigger house. We’re still investigating.

I thought, “What if that could be the communal space that has art, and that people can rent?” My friend and I pulled up the information and wrote out a business plan for some kind of art center. Then we tabled it because I had all this other stuff going on. It’s a little house, not a bank.

LM: Theater Gates started didn’t start with the Stony Island Arts Bank. He first bought those row houses on the side streets and then he built up to the bank.

TJ: Yeah, he did. I forgot about that.

NR: You should start with this little house.

TJ: It’s very cheap. I think they said it was like $20,000.

NR: You were so successful with your Kickstarter. I think you could do another. For the house!

LM: We haven’t talked about LUMA’s outreach beyond its own student population. The Smart Museum has partnerships with schools. Is that something that you’re involved with?

NR: We do have a lot of partnerships. One of the key things that I’ve done since I started was we changed the upstairs children’s gallery into Art Expressways. We work with nonprofit organizations from around the city and this exhibition has let us build our partnership program. Most recently, we’ve partnered with Archi-Treasures and SkyART. Right now, we have a show up with Urban Gateways. Next, I’m going to be working with Yollocalli and then Marwen. I’ve been trying to build up the community partnerships by having a space to showcase the wonderful work different communities are doing with teaching artists and then showcasing the students’ work in an art museum next to exhibitions like Tonika’s, Victoria Martinez’s, and Following The Box.

The students can come in, look at those exhibitions and then go upstairs and see their work in the same building. We’ve connected with Metropolitan Planning Council because they partnered with us for Tonika’s public programs. They’ve advertised the exhibition and given us their publications about segregation that we’ve been handing out.

LM: It sounds like the partnerships are proliferating. What bringing in new audiences and artists?

Folded Map, installation view. From Instagram.

NR: Each exhibition provides new opportunities to connect with new audiences. With Following the Box, we’ve been trying to connect with the Indian community. Our guest curators Jerry Zbiral and Allen Teller have been bringing a lot of different groups to the exhibition. We also regularly partner with the Poetry Foundation. Tonika did a program with them for Everyday Englewood. Tara Betts did a reading of her poems about Tonika’s photographs while we projected them. I really want to get her to come in and do it again and record her voice with the images. We also try to bring in schools. This summer we had a lot of groups from After School Matters and MapCore.

LM: You and Natasha talked in the beginning about the enormous response to the show. I don’t know what you were anticipating, but it seems to be getting a lot of attention. What are you seeing in terms of range of response?

TJ: I did not want to have the difficulty of trying to find more map twins since I wanted to continue the project. Natasha and Loyola helped me secure the map twins up North. My first clue as to the response was the contact form in the gallery. Within three weeks after the opening reception, more than 100 people filled it out. I haven’t checked it in a week and a half, but last time, it was at 225.

NR: People keep asking me also. “Can I get involved?” I tell them, “Go to Tonika’s website.”

TJ: People who have filled out that form, they definitely want to be a part of the project. They want to find their map twins. That’s one response. Then I didn’t foresee the teachers, the academic world was going to respond to it this way. So many student groups and high school groups.

LM:  What is it about your show and what you’ve done that’s caused such a response?

TJ: One thing people tell me, “I thought of that too.” I really think a lot of people are connected to it because of their own personal buy-in. They’ve actually thought about it, or went to the wrong address before. When they learned about it, they’re like, “Oh yeah, that’s right. Yeah, that is possible. It happened to me.” I think people feel connected to it in that way. Then also, just the fact that it’s showing the inequity that we all know exists. Everyone just uses the Red Line train as the example. I think people are intrigued, “Oh, this is another way to look at it.”

LM: If I were a teacher trying to talk about redlining or segregation in terms of lived experience, Folded Map is so effective because it shows it with photos and by asking basic questions like, “What do you have in your neighborhood? What don’t you have in your neighborhood?” Also, your portraits of the people and the buildings are beautiful. The way you’ve composed the photographs gives each one individuality and dignity. They’re very eloquent.

TJ: Thank you. I have to credit City Bureau for encouraging me to talk to the residents, which made the project evolve into portraits. It would have not been as powerful with just the address pair. It wouldn’t have humanized it. I was just so adamant. I was fed up. I thought, “Oh, Chicago, let me just show you.” The fact that people are involved definitely added that special touch that people connect to.

LM: For starters, we all have an address. That’s something most everyone can relate to. One last thing, do you have a twin?

TJ: Yes. I actually do. Green Street doesn’t go all the way North, it is a different street name. I haven’t yet looked for my exact numeric map twin. But I found my neighborhood and life-like map twin. This is part of the response. She grew up in Edgewater and like me went to Lane Tech. She said, “I believe I’m your map twin. We should meet. We should record it and our parents should talk too.” That was such a great concept. I told her, “We’re going to do it. Just let me get through the exhibition first.” She was really interested in how our parents decided to, one, send us to Lane Tech. Her father is originally from New York and moved to Chicago. She knew my story and saids, “It would be so great if they could talk to each other and talk about us.”

LM: It sounds like the responses bring in new ideas.

TJ: That’s what I wanted to tell you. The academic response showed me that Folded Map needs a curriculum. Then I had a theater group contact me saying, “The video is so rich with material that it could be a play.” When they started explaining it to me, I was thought, “I’m not a theater person. I didn’t see it.”

LM: The twinning and the video conversation of Folded Map are dialogic like a play. People are talking to each other in a particular place about living in that place.

TJ: The responses to Folded Map get me thinking about it in ways I never would have thought about had it not been exhibited. The University of Chicago Press said they were interested. I was like, “What? An actual book?” They’re interested in books that look at Chicago from a unique perspective that’s not only academic.

LM: Natasha, is there anything else you’d like to add before we close. We’ve learned a lot about your vision and what you’re doing within and beyond the walls of LUMA.

NR: I think in the future, we hope to continue in this direction. There’s so many talented Chicago artists. So much rich material. I’m really excited about future projects. Just to go back to what we were talking about a minute ago. Some responses that I’ve seen that I really loved are from the kids who come in and light up when they see the mural-size map.

LM: The map’s large scale of is terrific. It shows so many neighborhood details.

NR: They get so excited by seeing the city in a new way. I would like to thank Paola Aguirre at Borderless Studio for the concept and creation of the interactive map. It’s a wonderful starting point to engage groups in conversations about this project. We have also had so many high school and college groups coming in. In many ways it is the perfect project to engage students and connect to things that their teachers are trying to teach them. Then we’ve had so many community members that live in one or the other side of the city and say to me, “You need to tell the artist this.” And they start telling stories. It’s a great exhibition for people to share all kinds of things and talk about how neighborhoods have changed. Some people lived in both neighborhoods. It’s been really great that it’s been such a wide-reaching exhibition in so many ways. People from Chicago love it, because they’re invested and they can put their addresses on the wall and they’re a part of the project. I’ve had international groups too. A group from France loved it.

TJ: Did they get it?

NR: They got it and loved it. The woman from France took me aside and told me how much she loved the project and connected to it. She was really just taken by it. People have gotten really emotional about it.

TJ: That’s amazing. A student from Colombia said, “The Chicago’s map reminds me of the map at home.” They’re the only city in Colombia that has a numeric system. He said, “It could be applied to my home too.” He even emailed me to show the map and numbers.

NR: It makes me think about segregation around the world. You’re encouraging people to connect that would never meet. It’s kind of a random connection to live on opposite ends of the city with the same address. But there’s something there. It brings people together in such an interesting way. Someone came in yesterday who kept saying, “I keep getting mail for my map twin. They keep delivering it to me by accident.” We are connected in unexpected ways to our map twins.

TJ: That’s true. I never thought of it. This is a little piece of somebody else’s life, the twin address.

LM: I think also about the everyday life part of it that you’ve been working on in your other Englewood projects. When you pose questions for the map twins, you’re not asking, “How do you experience segregation?” You find out but the answer emerges out of their everyday experience. For example, the woman who says about shopping in Englewood, “All the stores here are second rate. The few that are here, I wouldn’t want to shop in.” That says a lot about her experience of the neighborhood. I thought it was so interesting that a man in Englewood said that there’s no places for entertainment and he thought it would be great to have a bowling alley. It made me think of the book, Bowling Alone. It’s about the decline of forms of social interaction and community life such as bowling. His response makes me wonder, someone wants to go bowling, what else does that signify? It may be the longing for somewhere to go and meet and enjoy being with other people. Like the small house in Englewood that you have your eye on.

TJ: Yes. The future Englewood Arts Center. We’ll see.

NR: I do one last thing I’d like to say. Lise, in an email you were asking about the connection between aesthetics and social activism. Another reason Tonika’s work is so strong is that she has such a great eye and creates beautiful portraits. That is very evident in Everyday Englewood. In Folded Map I love the portrait of Maurice. You have the eye of an artist able to portray these things in visually compelling way, but that is paired with your interest and dedication to starting these important conversations. You co-founded RAGE. The fact that you are also a full-time activist and artist fully dedicated to changing the conversation about Englewood and focus on segregation allows this to be such a successful show.

LM: I agree. And as an artist you’re not new to thinking as an activist. The art is leading as much as the ideas and the social commitment underneath it. There are many artist-activists, but often one or the other side is weak. Either its conceptualization of what it means to be activist and the issue they’re supposedly being activist about, or the quality of the artwork. I don’t see this problem in your work.

Photo by Tonika Johnson from Everyday Englewood series.

NR: I know your background was in photojournalism and you’ve been photographing for most of your life. You’ve been dedicated to these two different things for most of your life. The fact that you’re able to bring your talents together in these projects is so fantastic

LM: That’s what’s distinctive about your two LUMA shows. Sometimes, work can be innovative and edgy, but it has some ways to go. I see a lot of art and talk to a wide range of artists. It’s always a pleasure when the ideas and the thinking are at the same high level as the execution of the art. That’s when I say to myself, “I’d like to see more of their work.”

NR: That’s why when I heard about your project, I’m like, “That’s a great idea, but let me see this.” Then I looked at the Everyday Englewood photos and was thrilled. You are also fantastic at engaging people in conversations about your work, and this is so important. You’ve been amazing with the press and giving interviews. Sometimes you can have a really talented artist that has good ideas and does beautiful work, but then they have trouble talking about it.

TJ: It’s hard. I just thank God for having people like you in my orbit, but I feel so comfortable with you and the people that you’ve connected me. You helped me have the confidence that it’s my story. To know that I don’t have to deviate from that. It makes it a lot easier to talk about when I feel like I don’t have to speak differently or I have to speak in a way that doesn’t come naturally to me.

LM: That’s also something very refreshing about your work and the way you talk about it. A lot of artists, often those who’ve been through MFA programs, learn to speak in a certain way. And they think they have to speak in that way to be taken seriously. They use an academic language that doesn’t connect with as broad an audience as you can connect with. Yet at the same time, you convey the fact that your thinking can handle complex ideas.

NR: There’s a lot of depth to your project. It allows people to talk about the history of segregation, red lining, the grid map. All of these relevant topics in Chicago. There are many levels. That’s why it’s really important that you’re able to talk about it in this way—and to so many audiences.

TJ: As a matter of fact, I’m going to Vocalo Radio tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lise McKean

Lise McKean is a writer, editor, and anthropologist based in Chicago.