Cauleen Smith's Sun Ra-inspired "A Star Is a Seed" at the MCA | Bleader

Cauleen Smith's Sun Ra-inspired "A Star Is a Seed" at the MCA


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A Star Is a Seed
  • Courtesy of the artist
  • "A Star Is a Seed"
I first encountered the term Afro-Futurism when I met the artist Hebru Brantley, who told me in an interview, "I consider myself an Afro-Futurist. I think my work merges the new and neon with more traditional brushstrokes and techniques." Earlier this week I visited Cauleen Smith's MCA exhibition "A Star Is a Seed." While Smith does not define herself as an Afro-Futurist, "A Star Is a Seed" is a meditation on experimental musician and Afro-Futurist Sun Ra. Like Brantley, Smith is a black Chicago-based artist whose work celebrates the Chicago landscape and imbues old traditions with new ideas. Smith's "A Star Is a Seed" is a series of stories told through both a home-movie aesthetic and calculated digital design.

"A Star Is a Seed" begins with The Ark After the Flood, a series of images, filtered through a fish tank, that vaguely represent a pastoral scene. It's accompanied by a recording of "Over the Rainbow" by Sun Ra, Mary Lou Williams, Art Tatum, and Keith Jarrett. While Smith plays with projected images in The Ark After the Flood, in The Infinity Vortex she abstracts the viewer's reflection through a maze of mirrors. At certain points I looked toward a mirrored wall and couldn't see my face; instead I found reflections of my profile and back. The title is an homage to Sun Ra, whose practice was imbued with science fiction language.

The main body of "A Star Is a Seed" is a series of video installations. One video depicts a rainy Chicago day in Chinatown. A strip mall comprising Chinese restaurants and businesses is mostly empty; only a few people crowd under awnings and staircases. The camera shakily pans toward an incoming line of musicians from the South Rich High School marching band. The group, clad in costumes, plays a few songs in the main courtyard as onlookers huddle around the perimeter. Unlike many of the other videos, there are no direct quotes or suggestions of Afro-Futurist language. Instead the band sings the Sun Ra tune "Space Is the Place" to their ad hoc audience. Despite many poignant moments in Smith's videos, they are a bit long-winded, and I found my attention wavering. However, once I emerged from the screening room and made my way home, I realized Smith had given me an entirely new perspective of the city I call home.

Tue 10 AM-8 PM, Wed-Sun 10 AM-5 PM, Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago, 312-280-2660,, $7-$12, free for children 12 and under and military members. Free on Tuesdays.

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