The community room in the Garfield Park Conservatory will transport its visitors to a world where Black identities are not only represented but celebrated.
In this world, African-descended peoples live in a rich and robust environment, as beautiful as the tropical landscape that inhabits the conservatory’s glasshouse to educate its visitors about the power of nature and human interdependence with plants. The conservatory is at 300 N. Central Park Ave.
In a similar manner, by demonstrating what is possible through beautiful and powerful art creations, the free exhibition “An Otherworldly Existence: Afrofuturism and the Environment” will open to the public on April 27, bringing visitors a collection of 12 mixed-media collages created by Chicago Artist Kee Merriweather that will be on display until June 30.
A South Side native, Merriweather knows environmental injustice disproportionately affects Black people on the South and West Sides of the city. Inspired by their childhood and their father’s teachings, Merriweather created 12 collages that explore the beauty of portraits, the possibilities of Afrofuturism, and the environmental racism experienced by the African Diaspora.
“My father is a Pan Africanist and former Black Panther Party member. He introduced me to Sun Ra’s debut film ‘Space is The Place’ as a teenager,” Merriweather said.
Portraits play a key role in Merriweather’s work, where the artist uplifts Black identities using portraits of Black people often found in archival material to create mixed-media collages. Their work also examines how print, imagery, literature, pedagogy, research and archiving represent Black people. An example of this work is in their digital and print archive “Homagetoblkmadonnas,” where the artist collects images of Black mothers, femmes and women. Viewers will see a glimpse of this work as some of these archival images are included in this new exhibition.
Rooted in Afrofuturism’s social, political and artistic movement, Merriweather uses portraits to center their lineage, connected to The Great Migration, the Black Belt and Jamaica and connect it to nature.
“I juxtaposed West and East African portraits against landscapes of my own and my parents’ Black heritage [from places] such as Nigeria, Ethiopia and South Africa,” Merriweather said via email.
Onyx Engobor, exhibitions coordinator for the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance, said the exhibition was selected to provide Garfield Park’s Black and Brown residents an opportunity to view art that is meaningful to them and that aligns with the Garfield Park Conservatory’s mission.
“The topic of environmental injustice and environmental racism was selected as Garfield Park is historically and presently a site of environmental injustice,” Engobor said, adding this Earth month themed exhibition features art that educates families and empowers them to “take control of the narrative of their communities.”
“Environmentalism as a whole, as a system and as an institution has historically excluded Black and Brown people and Indigenous people,” Engobor said. “It’s really important to the conservatory to make space for representation of Black and Brown people and marginalized people in the outdoors.”
“[In] Afrofuturism, there is power in being able to create your own narratives, your own stories, create your own vision for the future,” Engobor said. The art for this exhibition is an invitation to reframe current narratives, as “the otherworldly existence” typically refers to the marginalization of Black people. But, in the context of this show “what is born out of that marginalization is this very beautiful, very powerful otherworldly existence that has the ability to provide a platform to dismantle systems of oppression.”
“We can imagine, a world beyond racism, a world beyond environmental injustice, a future where every person, every community is thriving, Afrofuturism as a theory provides space to do this,” Engobor said.
By using collages, an accessible art form that anyone can create, the exhibition aims to teach young children and families “the importance of creation and how it can be an act of resistance.” Engobor hopes people will walk away from this exhibit empowered to create, thinking, “Wow, I can actually do something to make my environment, my community, my world, my Earth, a better, safer sustainable place.”