A vibrant portrait of Nina Simone wearing a patterned, colorful robe and beautiful black and white head ornaments hangs on the walls of the Chicago Center for Arts & Technology, located on the Near West Side. To its side, stands a portrait of Michelle Obama dressed in white surrounded by silver embellishments and flowered patterns. The gallery is filled with creative portraits and sculptures of Black women that evoke traditional African patterns and celestial representations of powerful icons. 

“I wanted to do a body of work that embodied strong women, passionate, reflective Black women and placed them in sacred places as a means of claiming power,” Rhonda Gray said Friday at the opening event of her exhibition “Sapphire Queens in Wonderland” at the Chicago Center for Arts & Technology. 

Her work challenges the negative portrayals of Black women as the “angry Black woman” that have historically been used to represent. Gray said Michelle Obama’s memoir prompted her to reflect on the way the media label Black women as “angry” because of the way they talk, act and look. 

“Historically, the stereotype has been used to silence and dehumanize Black women,” Gray said. The exhibition’s title alludes to this negative representation, known as the sapphire stereotype, and challenges it by placing Black women’s portraits “in Wonderland,” spaces of imagination where they are honored and remembered.  

For instance, in her piece portraying Michelle Obama, Gray realized the painting “was about going high,” a reference to Obama’s response to the media’s negativity. Obama’s quote, “When they go low, we go high” inspired Gray to include galactic embellishments in her portrait and represent her in an ascending position.  

Not only has the former First Lady inspired Gray’s work, but her art and writing were featured in “Michelle Obama’s Impact on African American Women and Girls.” 

Visitors can view Gray’s piece “High Grounded: When They Go Low, We Go High” | Samantha Hernandez

The exhibition is Gray’s fourth solo show, this time with a collection of mixed media portrait paintings and sculptures where women of African descent hold space for wonderment, self-liberation and cultural remembrance. 

With a career spanning over 20 years, Gray’s work has stood on walls across the nation with more than 20 exhibitions in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. Yet, Gray felt like bringing her art to Chicago’s West Side where she lived with her grandmother in her childhood. 

“I wanted to give back and add beauty and empowerment in my neighborhood.” 

The exhibition has a special meaning as Gray carries memories of her grandmother, “a very feisty woman” who would tell her anecdotes about life on the West Side, like visiting the Black Panther Party headquarters.

 “The spirit of my grandmother also is in my show,” Gray said. The exhibition is open to the public at the Chicago Center for Arts & Technology, 1701 W. 13th St. 

On April 14 at 5 p.m., Gray will host a free artist talk featuring spoken word and jazz performances. The artist will dive into the meaning of her work and her career as an artist, hoping to encourage a dialogue that reimagines the narrative on race and gender. 

“It is important to reclaim the power of having an authentic voice as a Black woman,” Gray said. “Not only it opens the door for them, but it opens the door for humanity in a unique way.”