Art Exhibition Review: “Toward Common Cause: Art, Social Change, and the MacArthur Fellows Program at 40”

Art from Wendy Ewald and Amalia Mesa-Bains in Weinberg/Newton Gallery Gives Poignant Glimpse of Chicago’s Vibrant Mexican Community

Those of us who aren’t well connected to Chicago’s art community are probably unfamiliar with the Weinberg/Newton Gallery. Nonetheless, their newest exhibition of art from Wendy Ewald and Amalia Mesa-Bains provides a fascinating glimpse of the past and present of Chicago’s Mexican community, which should bring a lot of deserved attention to this stylish and socially conscious gallery, whose mission, as stated on their website, is to work with artists and nonprofit groups and “engage the public on social justice issues.”

As luck would have it, my family and I happened to be in Chicago on the day of the exhibition’s opening, and we had to check it out. We made advanced reservations for the show, which you can do by clicking here if you want to make sure that they have space when you plan to go. I don’t go to Chicago that often, and I always find the traffic there to be extremely frustrating, but we were able to find street parking no more than a few blocks away from the gallery. Upon arrival, we were greeted by a helpful and knowledgeable worker, who explained to us that this exhibition is part of a larger celebration (held at various sites around town) for the 40th anniversary of the MacArthur Fellows program.

Description of “Toward Common Cause…” exhibition at Newton/Weinberg Gallery. Photo credit: Daniel H. Brown

The exhibition at the Weinberg/Newton is divided into two galleries, the first of which features photography from Wendy Ewald’s students, whose images (and voices) provide fuel for contemplation of serious topics including immigration, domestic violence, discrimination, etc. The works here come from programs Ewald conducted with two different groups, adolescents from the Centro Romero Youth Program in Chicago and Mexican and Mayan villagers in Chiapas, Mexico.

“Daily Life and Dreams in the Pandemic.” Wendy Ewald. Photo credit: Daniel H. Brown

The section entitled “Daily Life and Dreams in the Pandemic: A Project with the Centro Romero Youth Program, 2020-2021” was perhaps the most eye-opening part of the exhibition for me, as fifteen young people, mostly from families of Mexican immigrants, were given tools and knowledge to document their day-to-day life and reflect on their dreams. Each contribution included a portrait of the artist in front of a background of a solid color with their hand-written first name (perhaps in maker), along with other small personal drawings that give us a small sense of what their personality and interests are. Some contributors, like Irving and Cyntia, are smiling, while others, like Kevin and Marestela, are serious. Some look directly at us, like Efren and Jeancarlo, while others like Naila and Zulairam are looking down or even off to the side, like Giselle and Itzel. All of them look perfectly natural, however, in that they didn’t attempt to get dressed up in fancy clothes. It doesn’t look like any are wearing makeup. Next to each portrait are a few paragraphs in which the artists comment on different aspects of their life, such as their family origins, the paths they’ve taken to where they are now, their artistic vision, their feelings about living in a pandemic, and their hopes for the future. Most write in English, while at least one, Angel, wrote in Spanish. Next to the portrait and brief essays, we see as many as 15 pictures taken by these youths.

“Daily Life and Dreams in the Pandemic.” Wendy Ewald. Photo credit: Daniel H. Brown

Many of the things these young artists share are deeply personal and moving, like Zulairam, whose unique name is María Luz written backwards, who said that her father abandoned the whole family in Mexico and left them without a peso to their name, after which she, her mother and siblings immigrated to the United States. They crossed the border with a coyote and even spent some time in a detention center. Despite these hardships, the pictures she shares reflect happiness, like her mom and siblings singing karaoke in matching pajamas in their living room, or flowers she sees on her daily walk. It is interesting to see that these artists express different perspectives on Mexico. While one young man who has never been there wants some day to visit his parents’ hometown, where there’s a waterfall and mango trees, others don’t directly address any feelings they may have, positive or negative, toward their origins.

“Daily Life and Dreams in the Pandemic.” Wendy Ewald. Photo credit: Daniel H. Brown

My wife, a Mexican immigrant herself, was particularly impressed with Noelia, who chose to write about her picture entitled “Standing Alone, but Tall,” of a woman facing away from the camera, standing on a basketball court and looking in the direction of a hardware store. Noelia asks us to consider what the woman might be thinking about and where she might have been prior to that moment. Then she provides a philosophical statement on what it means to “stand tall,” equating it to not giving up, especially when the world seems to be against you.

“Daily Life and Dreams in the Pandemic.” Wendy Ewald. Photo credit: Daniel H. Brown

I would say that the most heart-breaking photo, for me at least, was one shared by Adriana, who took a picture of her mother’s feet hanging off the side of her bed, with one sandal still on, the other on the floor. On the image she writes: “Single mother of 3. So tired she doesn’t even want to take her shoes off.”

“Daily Life and Dreams in the Pandemic.” Wendy Ewald. Photo credit: Daniel H. Brown

While the stories of these young artists are sometimes difficult to hear, it is so important that we pay attention to their realities. I think one who takes the time to look at their pictures and read their essays will walk away wanting to do more to help refugee communities, who are often ignored, even if we walk past them every day on the street. “Daily Life…” gives us good first steps to do something: listen and learn. As I listened to them and learned about their lives, I thought about my own students at Western Illinois University. Probably half of my students in upper division classes are heritage speakers of Spanish, and most of them are from the Chicago area. They have similar backgrounds and unique stories to tell. Ewald’s work reminds me that I need to dialogue with them even more and create an environment that helps them to develop the tools they need to empower themselves to change the world, quite literally.

“The Devil is Leaving His Cave.” Wendy Ewald. Photo credit: Daniel H. Brown

On the other side of the first gallery is a very different collection of photographs created by students who attended workshops in photography with Ewald. “The Devil is Leaving His Cave” is the title of this series of black and white photographs taken by Mexican and Mayan villagers from Chiapas. The very colorful photographs of “Daily Life…” create a stark contrast with these works, which are about thirty years old now, but the black, white, and grey tones create an impression that they could have been taken even decades before that. In fact, although they were taken at a very specific and relevant time, a year before the armed revolt of the Zapatistas, the photos feel timeless.

“The Devil is Leaving His Cave.” Wendy Ewald. Photo credit: Daniel H. Brown

According to Ewald, students were instructed “to photograph their dreams or fantasies,” “to create their own worlds,” as well as to show “what they saw around them.” The result is a collection of photos that are haunting, to say the least. Some photographs have very descriptive titles, such as “A boy was crushed by a barrel,” “Sebastian was punished for eight hours,” and “Firewood fell on top of my little brother Pedro.” The play of light and shadow of some of these photographs, like the ones shown below, often create nightmarish images. Without having access to more details about the scenes, it is unclear to me even now whether or not some of the images are merely staged by playful and imaginative children or if they show real events, although I would suppose that there is more play than I originally thought.

Dominga González Castellanos and Wendy Ewald. “Sebastian was punished for eight hours” (1991). From “The Devil is Leaving His Cave.” Wendy Ewald. Photo credit: Daniel H. Brown
Christian Alberto López Medina. “A man killing his enemy” (1991). From “The Devil is Leaving His Cave.” Wendy Ewald. Photo credit: Daniel H. Brown
Javier Bautista. “The river monsters” (1991). From “The Devil is Leaving His Cave.” Wendy Ewald. Photo credit: Daniel H. Brown

There are some photos that are just a little bit out of focus, like Teresa López’s “The Phantom,” adding an almost ethereal quality to them, while others are so perfectly framed, like “My uncle Mariano is working in the field, Mexico” by Juan Ricardo Hernández López, that they look like they were taken by professionals. Others have characteristics more typical of amateur photographers, like a composition that leaves some people out of the frame, such as Wendy López Medina’s “The whole family is eating. These are my cousins,” but even then, what we do see is so richly detailed that the viewer feels like an observer who goes unnoticed by the people in the image.

Above: Juan Ricardo Hernández López. “My uncle Mariano is working in the field, Mexico” (1991). Below: Wendy López Medina. “The whole family is eating. These are my cousins” (1991). Both from “The Devil is Leaving His Cave.” Wendy Ewald. Photo credit: Daniel H. Brown
Explanations of Wendy Ewald’s “The Devil is Leaving His Cave” and “Daily Life…” Photo credit: Daniel H. Brown

My ultimate takeaway from “The Devil is Leaving His Cave” is that I want to know more about these people and their lives. Its placement across the room from “Daily Life…” allows one to contemplate a dialogue between the two series. I, at least, am left wondering if the scenes portrayed in “The Devil is Leaving His Cave” might feel remotely familiar to the parents or grandparents of the adolescents from Centro Romero.

Amalia Mesa-Bains’s commentary on her exhibition: “Dos Mundos: Mexican Chicago, 2020-2021.” Photo credit: Daniel H. Brown

The second gallery of the exhibition features a collection of works from Amalia Mesa-Bains called “Dos Mundos: Mexican Chicago, 2020-2021.” As the title suggests, many of these works mix different media together to tell the history of Mexicans in Chicago. Take for example the image below, which shows four different collages featuring images from, I’m assuming, the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. Each collage focuses on a different aspect of Mexican participation in the community – for instance, the military, sports, and industrialization – and include a sentence or two about it.

From “Dos Mundos: Mexican Chicago, 2020-2021.” Amalia Mesa-Bains. Photo credit: Daniel H. Brown

My favorite works from Mesa-Bains here are those in which the collages act as a background to a foreground that includes culturally significant artifacts and symbols of the Mexican community, like cornhusk dolls, talavera tiles, calaveras, or la Virgen de Guadalupe, as seen in the images below. All of these works generate the same feelings in me, that the city of Chicago owes a debt of gratitude to its proud and productive Mexican community.

From “Dos Mundos: Mexican Chicago, 2020-2021.” Amalia Mesa-Bains. Photo credit: Daniel H. Brown
From “Dos Mundos: Mexican Chicago, 2020-2021.” Amalia Mesa-Bains. Photo credit: Daniel H. Brown

The appeal of the “Toward Common Cause…” exhibition should reach well beyond Chicago’s Latin and art communities. It’s well worth a trip to the city if you’re anywhere in the region.

The exhibition is free of charge and runs through December 18th. Strict Covid protocols are followed, including the use of masks and restrictions on capacity. The website states that vaccinations are required for guests 12 years of age and older, although we were not asked to require proof.

Finally, I wish to thank Ramsey Hoey from Carol Fox and Associates for notifying me about this exhibition and inviting me to attend. (No compensation was received for this review.)

If you attend the exhibition, let us know what you thought about it in the comments below. And if you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it on your favorite social media. ¡Gracias!

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