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"I like to describe myself as a creative rather than a photographer," says Christopher "ThoughtPoet" Brown. "Sometimes I feel like the label is limiting. I write, I act, and I try to do more with my photos than just capture moments."
Now 26, Brown has been surrounded by art for as long as he can remember, thanks to his grandmother, Annette Brown. He tags her, and her emphasis on pro-blackness, as his greatest inspiration. She too was an artist: a sculptor, painter, and storyteller who signed her work Phoenix Rising. She'd raised Brown and his siblings in Chatham after they were abandoned by their birth parents. "Because of her, we were really Afrocentric before it was cool," he says with a chuckle. "We were at all types of arts festivals growing up, African arts festivals, DuSable Art Festival, things of that nature. When I got to high school, though, I started running away from that.
"I started gangbanging my freshman year at Harlan [Community Academy], mostly because I felt like I didn't know who I was. One of the guys we knew from the neighborhood was shot in the head and killed under a viaduct. It made me switch up. I felt like I had to get back to what I was raised on."
In 2008, he started applying himself more. After his sophomore year in high school, he interned at Little Black Pearl workshop in Kenwood, a nonprofit dedicated to enriching the community's youth through art and entrepreneurship. Brown taught poetry and creative writing.
Though his time at Little Black Pearl put him in the shoes of an artist, in high school Brown was more likely to be found interviewing artists than making art. In his junior year, he started doing journalism with True Star Magazine, a youth-run nonprofit media company. "We had a website called Lyrical Lab, and I would interview and photograph artists that were starting to pop, some that are still popping," he says. He was able to meet artists like Noname, Saba, and Chance the Rapper through his participation in Young Chicago Authors and the Chicago Public Library's YOUmedia. "Once the website went on hiatus is when I started to take my art more seriously."
He ventured into concert photography after he graduated high school and began, as he puts it, widening his artistic range. He started his Tumblr page, ThoughtPoet's Opinions, wherein he provided poetic captions to the images he captured. He chose the alias ThoughtPoet because of his juvenile infatuation with the title "poet." "All of my art comes from pure emotion," he says. "I wanted to use that emotion in my photography too."
In summer 2016 he participated with the LetUsBreathe Collective in acts of protest such as the "Freedom Square" occupation, as communications cochair of Black Youth Project 100. When Kristiana Rae Colón, cofounder of the collective, opened the Breathing Room community center in 2017, she offered to use the space to house his first exhibition. "I wanted to share my work on more than just social media," he says. "When I talked about an exhibition, Kristiana was just like, 'Let's do it here.'"
That exhibition, "Heart Melanin," was an extension of the work he had already been sharing on Tumblr and Instagram. "'Heart Melanin' is really supposed to be an embodiment of what melanin is," he says. He means this beyond the context of skin pigment. "So that could be found anywhere from abstract work, to candid work, to concert and event work. But all of it is celebrating what it's like to just be black. That could mean hood shit, that could mean really well-thought-out concerts, but I really want it to focus on everything black people go through."
Celebrating blackness is a theme found across much of Brown's work. Even in times when it isn't central to the meaning of the art, blackness is front and center. In his upcoming exhibition, "Self-Heal," also hosted at the Breathing Room, he collaborates with artist Najee Searcy, who treats black individuals as works of art. Brown captures black models with skin overlaid with abstract designs and patterns painted by Searcy.
Before the shoots, Brown says, "we went and had conversations with the people in these photos. You might see really wild colors, or interesting patterns and a lot of that is really explaining in detail who these people are. Because both of us are spiritually grounded, that gave us a very solid foundation for what the work was going to look like."
Brown also hints at capturing blackness in another way in a future exhibition that he’s working on called "I Know Folks Ass." "Anybody from Chicago knows that phrase as a term of recognition, sometimes endearment, and the concept is basically fusing very abstract beauty with super realistic urban shit," he says. "For example [in one of my photos], you might see niggas at a trap house, but with serene figures in the background."
Brown has recently done work for the Reader as well: he did the photo shoot for the Triibe's interview with Taylor Bennett at Navy Pier in advance of Bennett's appearance at Lollapalooza.
"There was no way I was missing that chance," he says.
How could he? Not only was it a chance to showcase his work on the cover of his hometown's alt-weekly, but Taylor was Chatham kinfolk.
It was also appropriate that Brown would photograph that particular story: a feature by a black Chicago woman on a childhood acquaintance of his, tackling the subject of spaces where black kids seek escape.
"I want to battle this perspective that 'Chicago is this,' 'Chicago is that,' 'Don't go out south!'" he says. "That narrative is destroying the mentality of entire generations, and in reality it stems from black people in this city not having proper resources. Combating that is where this spirituality and this creativity comes from."
"Self-Heal" opens with a reception on Saturday, August 25, from 7 to 10 PM at the Breathing Room, 1434 W. 51st, letusbreathecollective.com. There's a $5 suggested donation.