Jesse Howard was among the first generation of Black students allowed to attend Austin High School just as the West Side was integrating.
“We just had our 50-year reunion this year,” Howard said during a recent interview. “That whole generation, we did good. All we did was riot everyday, because they didn’t want us there — mostly Italians and Irish.”
Howard recalls his childhood growing up in Austin with relish. In fact, the structural injustice of the place he once called home frames much of his artwork, which often features grotesque and morphed faces and bodies suspended in protest, sleeping outside and under arrest.
Now, Howard is relishing his place among an entirely different class — the 70 Chicago area artists featured in a new exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art called “The Long Dream.”
“Against the backdrop of a global pandemic and a renewed reckoning over racial justice and inequality, The Long Dream invites visitors to see the city of Chicago, the world, and themselves, through the eyes of more than 70 local artists whose work offers us ways to imagine a more equitable and interconnected world,” according to a summary of the exhibit on the museum’s website.
The exhibit is named after the 1958 novel by Richard Wright, which is set in a small Mississippi town and follows the protagonist, Tyree Tucker, through a maze of corruption and exploitation.
Howard said that the museum selected to show three of his pieces. One of them, “The Bewitching Hour,” flirts with the themes of Wright’s novel.
“If you’ve ever heard your parents say, ‘Be careful of the bewitching hour,’ that means that most of the crime and killing happens between midnight and five,” Howard said. “My parents would always say, ‘Don’t be out there during the bewitching hour.’ I created that piece with mixed media. For instance, I used a disc for his eye.”
Howard said he considers another piece, “Rage South Carolina Nine,” his version of Norwegian Expressionist Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting “The Scream.” Howard said his “Scream” was based on the tragic events that took place in 2015, at Mother Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina.
“That was based on that young white boy who went out there in South Carolina, knocked on the church doors and during prayer time they let him in,” Howard said. “He sat down with them and asked for the pastor. Then he pulled out a gun and blew the pastor away and started killing the women. I can’t express how that made me feel.”
Despite the pandemic, Howard, who now lives in suburban Maywood, has perhaps never been busier. In addition to showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Howard’s first solo exhibition is currently taking place at the South Side Community Art Center through Dec. 17.
The South Side center has postponed viewing reservations for Howard’s show due to the recent COVID-19 stay-at-home restrictions implemented by the state. The MCA exhibition is happening through Jan. 17, 2021, but with restrictions.