Faheem Majeed's art holds up a mirror to institutions, and himself | Feature | Chicago Reader

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Faheem Majeed's art holds up a mirror to institutions, and himself

The artist's new solo exhibition explores the impact and imperfections of the South Side Community Art Center.

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"I don’t want to define space, I want to support it." - GONZALO GUZMAN
  • Gonzalo Guzman
  • "I don’t want to define space, I want to support it."

If you talk to the artist Faheem Majeed for more than a few minutes, it's likely that he'll mention the South Side Community Art Center, the storied cultural institution where he served as executive director from 2005 to 2011. In some ways, he's never left, as his art practice continues to explore the institution's legacy and contemporary significance. It has certainly never left him.

The Center, as Majeed calls it, serves as the focal point of his new solo exhibition on view at the Hyde Park Art Center (HPAC), "Planting and Maintaining a Perennial Garden: Shrouds." The centerpiece is the monumental Planting and Maintaining a Perennial Garden Shroud, a 30-by-25-foot piece of muslin, which features a rubbing taken of the Center's three-story facade. The shroud hangs by rope from the ceiling, and is draped over a cedar platform meant to mimic the walls of the Center's New Bauhaus-style main gallery. Because a three-story fabric cannot fit neatly in the two-story HPAC gallery, not all of the rubbing is legible. Much of it pools on the platform.

The longer you look at the shroud, the more you notice the inconsistencies, the deviations from the reality of the building. One window appears to be melting, its perspective warping to one side. Another has an extra rail running through its center. A column is doubled. Majeed leans into these imperfections, a result of the wind blowing, or the fabric moving. "It's not a one-to-one, but sometimes it's more beautiful, the thing that comes out, the thing that's unexpected," he says. He thinks of these moments as a poetic gesture of what it means to run a small culturally specific institution like the South Side Community Art Center (SSCAC), which is located in Bronzeville. Founded in 1940, SSCAC is the oldest African American art center in the country and the only center initiated by the Works Progress Administration still operating in its original building.

"All of these are metaphors for my role when I was curator, acting executive director, and eventually executive director of a culturally specific institution," he says. "There's a certain sort of nimbleness, especially on the smaller scale. There's a logical way of doing things, and then there's the actual way of doing things. I talk about the fact that the thing moves, you're taking a print of something that's not flat. So it's almost like it's a moving thing, it's a living thing, it's a growing thing."

Allison Peters Quinn, the director of exhibitions at HPAC, curated the show, and chose to include smaller examples of earlier rubbings Majeed has done. A series of twelve 13-by-13-inch rubbings of Majeed's cedar planks, mounted in a grid, are full of detail: loose threads become dark lines, a nail is captured in full, a knot in the wood looks like a radiating flower.

"Those were very much about detailing the process of making. It's there if you look, but if you're not pointed to looking at it, you get kind of overwhelmed by the whole large picture," she says. "It's all about these small moments that make up the whole, which I think connects to his thoughts about institution building and how all the people that make those institutions are essential to the work that that institution accomplishes."


“Planting and Maintaining a Perennial Garden: Shrouds”

Through July 24, appointment only, Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 S. Cornell, hydeparkart.org, free.

Push Pull with The Seldoms

Thu 6/10, 6 PM and Sat 6/12, 2 PM, Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 S. Cornell, hydeparkart.org, free.


Majeed, now 44, grew up in North Carolina, where his father was a local politician. In his adolescence, his parents separated, and he moved with his mother to Minneapolis, where she served as director of a substance abuse agency. Through their work, the spirit of community building was instilled in Majeed. His father's campaign slogan, "Majeed Cares," which was ubiquitous in his neighborhood growing up, sometimes makes its way into Majeed's work. In a 2014 sculpture, a massive circle is carved into two oversized planks of Oriented Strand Board, a sort of plywood that Majeed often uses. Inside the circle, at the top of each board, is the word "Vote." "Majeed Cares" is displayed across the bottom, while his father's image appears on both boards, which overlap in the middle. The words and images haven't actually been carved, the space around them has been etched out, as if the artist was making a massive block print. The sculpture is like a tool in that way. If you added ink, you could make duplicates of the image.

In high school, Majeed identified as an athlete. Though he took art classes and excelled in them, he didn't take them seriously. It wasn't until an art teacher, Mr. Wald, took one of Majeed's paintings, without his permission, and sold it at an art fair, that Majeed realized art might be his calling. The painting illustrated a Yoruba creation myth, where a chicken scratches at and scatters the dirt between its claws, creating the Earth. "Something about putting the money in my hand, I realized something that was probably going to end up in the trash was worth something," Majeed says. "That was the moment I realized work and passion could be one."

It was his junior year, so he had to move quickly to get a portfolio together and apply to art schools. He got into Howard University, initially planning to study painting, though he soon realized that it wasn't for him. "But sculpture, I saw the guys with the blowtorches, I was like, oh yeah I want to blowtorch," he says. He worked nonstop, creating loads of work during the school year, and interning long hours for a bronze sculptor during the summers.

"It was the mix of these two experiences, of being in the academic space and being out in the real world space, that I was able to piece together the labor of what it took," he says. "So when I left undergrad I already knew that I had to invest in myself. I had a studio right away, that was priority, that was before rent."

He moved home to Minneapolis briefly, before following his then-girlfriend, and now-wife LaShana Jackson, to Chicago, where she had gotten a job. He had no trouble finding early opportunities to show his sculptures in the city.

"I was invited to do all these shows," he says. "Because there was nothing but painters and photographers. I took up floor space."

He was often called the next Richard Hunt, a prominent metal sculptor, also based in Chicago, who has more than 100 public works installed across the country. One of Hunt's steel sculptures, Symbiosis, is on the campus of Howard University.

It was at one of these early group exhibitions, which included Theaster Gates, Cecil McDonald Jr., and Eric Nix, among others, that he first learned about the South Side Community Art Center. He was explaining his situation—new in town, unemployed, without access to a studio—to a group of other artists in the show, and they told him he needed to go to the Center. "I was like, what's that? They said, 'Here's the address, you come to this place when it opens on Wednesday.' I came down there and that was it."

The Center opened its doors to Majeed and he immediately felt welcomed. For months he was at the Center almost everyday, making collages upstairs, meeting other local artists and elders connected to the space, listening to stories. It felt like art history come to life. He met people who would perhaps be in the footnotes of his textbooks, like the activist Susan Woodson, or the former SSCAC director Doug Williams. When he was back on his feet financially, he returned to the Center, wanting to give back to the place that had given him so much. He was soon made curator.

It was there that he met Dr. Margaret Burroughs, one of the Center's founders who also established the DuSable Museum and was an artist and teacher. By the time Majeed met her, Burroughs was in her 80s (she died at 95 in 2010). Even still, she was active, working as the commissioner of the Chicago Park District, attending SSCAC board meetings, meeting student groups, teaching by doing.

Early on in their relationship, Majeed began to question the sort of one-dimensional way Burroughs was often talked about, the way her life seemed to be flattened. He began to think critically about her actions, to discern her philosophy by questioning why she did the things she did. One example was her tendency to give away countless Xerox prints of her work. When she met someone, she would learn about their work, ask about their future goals, and in the exchange, she would offer one of her prints. "Then she'd tell me, go run upstairs and run off more Xerox copies of the same poster," he says. "I'd be like, well that's not how art works."

Majeed couldn't understand it. Then he thought about where she learned printmaking, among activist artists at Mexico City's Taller de Gráfica Popular who used the accessible medium to advance radical social causes. A Xerox achieved that aim even faster than printmaking could.

"The point is to get the message out there, and leverage it," he says. "It's not about a commodified thing. So then the paper ain't worth anything but the exchange is because she just put it in your hand. It's about getting rid of all the noise and just leaving the very core of the thing."

He was impressed with the way she both fostered the activity of others and took action when she needed to, without asking for permission. "When I start breaking down her actions, like, oh she didn't actually try to found a museum, she wanted to educate her students because the school system wouldn't teach about diverse curriculum," he says. She may not have founded AfriCOBRA or the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC), but he notes that she was always around those groups, supporting them.

"There's a certain value set just watching her," he says. "She never taught me, but I just watched her and her actions spoke volumes to me. It's very blue collar, roll up your sleeves, that I put not only in my actions and stuff I do, but also the work. It comes through in a lot of the material choices I use, inexpensive, easy to find. But then kind of make you look at them a little differently.

"She was so important. I wanted to be Richard Hunt, you can imagine being a metal sculptor. Monumental monuments, huge. I said, I want to do that. I want to do something that defines space. And that's still important to me. My relationship with Richard Hunt is very precious. It's very important to me. But when I started coming to the Center and learning more about Margaret Burroughs, I said, oh, I don't want to define space, I want to support it. That's what she did. Her work supported the work. She wasn't in the center of it. She was in the room, nudging it. She was always there. Just leagues and leagues and leagues of people who were her students, who have a story, who had a precious moment. I decided that's what I want my work to do."

“I’m putting the mirror not just up to the institution, I’m also putting it up to myself, because I am a part of that." - GONZALO GUZMAN
  • Gonzalo Guzman
  • “I’m putting the mirror not just up to the institution, I’m also putting it up to myself, because I am a part of that."

While he was acting executive director of SSCAC, he decided to go to grad school. "I thought it could somehow break me into a room or a space that I, nor anyone that I was working with at the Center, was a part of," he says. Places like the MCA or the Renaissance Society were not on his radar. "I felt like there were conversations happening over there, wherever over there was. On the other side of a wall, and I could not see over it. I couldn't get through it, I couldn't engage."

He credits the support of Dan Peterman, an artist and professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, for helping him get in. He spent his first year at UIC listening and learning. As the only Black student in the program, Majeed felt like he was starting out on an uneven, or at least a different, playing field; Howard's program had been structured towards teaching about artists in the African American canon. He was also spread thin because of his commitments at the Center.

His progression there was partly out of necessity and partly due to his proactive work. His promotion to acting executive director happened when new institutional funding came in, requiring that the director and the board president positions were filled by different people. After filling the interim role for a while, it was apparent he was already doing the work of a full-fledged director, and after some discussion with the board, he was officially made SSCAC's executive director during finals week of his first year at UIC.

At first, he kept his work at SSCAC separate from school. He was on fellowship, and wasn't supposed to be working outside of school. But his wife was pregnant with their third child, so not working wasn't an option. In his second year, he started bringing the Center into his work, realizing that he could combine the two strands into art. "It kind of started to build from there," he says. "I learned about institutional critique. I learned about all these ways of maybe rethinking what is art. The world opened up to me in a certain sort of way."

After graduating he put together a project titled "The Demise of the South Side Community Art Center." He sent out an announcement with images of the building on fire, saying it had run out of money and had to close. And he invited a group of other artists with connections to the Center to set up installations throughout the building, all exploring the role of culturally specific institutions.

As much as Majeed treasures SSCAC, he doesn't put it on a pedestal, or treat it as untouchable. The Center after all is made up of people, who have varying ideas and priorities. There were certainly members of the community who pushed back against Majeed's "The Demise of the South Side Community Art Center" project. Sometimes you need to ruffle feathers in order to break something open, get conversations going, work towards change. Dr. Burroughs herself experienced pushback from SSCAC. In 1956, her membership dues to the Center were returned to her, as the board, caught up in the Red Scare of the times, were concerned about Burroughs's ties to communism. Her second husband, Charles Gordon Burroughs, had spent his formative years in Russia. In a letter of support, patron Adele K. Devera admonished the board for questioning the integrity of Burroughs, writing, "The center needs 'big' people to help it to survive." Eventually, the board relented and Burroughs was allowed back into the community.

Jeremiah Hulsebos-Spofford was in Majeed's cohort, and remembers this final project made him "totally totally interested in his trajectory." "It was a really nice sort of pulling the curtain back on his two worlds at that moment," he says. The two later cofounded the Floating Museum, an art collective that creates site-specific public art interventions; avery r. young and Andrew Schachman later joined as codirectors.

Part of Majeed's final project at UIC involved a self-portrait, made in response to a critical e-mail a SSCAC board member had sent about his appearance. Majeed had gone into work on his day off to put back a piano that had been temporarily moved for an exhibition. Due to the nature of the task, he was dressed casually. "You have an older kind of demographic that says a director should look a certain way," he says. "Even if you're coming on one of your days off, her assumption was I was working. And that I was expected to look a certain way, not dressed in everyday clothes."

In response to the e-mail, Majeed began a sort of performance, where he wore a suit to do all his Center-related tasks. "I'm the executive director, you want me to look a certain way but then I got to clean the bathrooms, I got to mop the floors, I got to fix stuff," he says. "This suit ain't what I wear. So I started wearing the suit to do all those things. I wear it for anything that was associated with the legacy of that space. The suit becomes a way of kind of making the artist invisible."

He wore the suit in a video he made responding to the e-mail, called Piano Push, where he effortfully moved the piano from one side of the Center's gallery to the other. The suit also factors into the exhibition at HPAC. Majeed partnered with the dance company The Seldoms to choreograph a performance at SSCAC using the shroud. In the piece, Push Pull, dancer Damon Green wears the suit, moving through the gallery and manipulating the shroud along the way; artworks from SSCAC's collection are mounted on the walls behind him.

Green says Majeed explained the background of Piano Push and what it meant to him to take on all the work of running an institution. "He wanted to explore what that was and how that job is never finished," Green says. "I was able to relate to that on a physical level because as a mover the process is always going on. You're finding nuances, you're finding new ways of inventing an expression, or getting a thought out. Always working."

Green will activate the gallery space with a new iteration of the performance, to be held at HPAC on June 10 and June 12. The garage doors that face the street will be open, allowing the public to easily watch the performance and engage with the works.

Planting and Maintaining a Perennial Garden Shroud - TOM VAN EYNDE
  • Tom Van Eynde
  • Planting and Maintaining a Perennial Garden Shroud

The idea of making Planting and Maintaining a Perennial Garden Shroud, which was funded by a grant through the Joyce Foundation, came to Majeed several years ago. He envisioned what it would be like to make: he would drape a huge piece of fabric over the facade of the SSCAC building and get to work doing a rubbing of it, etching its details into cloth.

In practice, making the piece was a bit more complicated than that, requiring a hydraulic crane and a team of assistants working for a full week to complete the graphite rubbings. It had to be completed in the August heat, before the school year started, as Majeed also teaches at UIC, where he is now a full-time assistant professor in the School of Art and Art History. The fabric was so heavy and cumbersome, the marks had to be made in sections, which Majeed later sewed together by hand. He gravitates towards projects that are labor-intensive, that show the work. He loves the process of making, of figuring out a challenge.

Pre-COVID, Majeed envisioned the making as a series of public community events, similar to the creation of the Wall of Respect, a collaborative mural created by members of OBAC in 1967 at the corner of 43rd Street and Langley Avenue. That had to be scrapped, but passersby were still interested in the process. "That's the kind of thing that you want art to do, you want it to create interest, you want people to be able to ask questions and to think differently and more broadly," says SSCAC executive director Monique Brinkman-Hill. "When you think about an institution that's 80 years old, you don't always think about vibrancy. And I think that's what projects like Faheem's do is they create a vibrancy."

The idea for rubbings was inspired in part by Margaret Burroughs's habit of buying grave markers for folks who died while incarcerated. The shroud theme functions in a similar way, relating to his interest in institutional critique, in the beginnings and endings of things. Making a rubbing is a spiritual act, it's repetitive, it's intimate. It's a way to honor something and a way to make a print of it, to archive it, almost like a photograph.

Through Majeed's sustained focus on SSCAC and other cultural institutions, he hopes to spur the communities they serve to more deeply engage in their development. "In order for the spaces to survive and evolve, we have to have more honest conversations about how they function, right?" he asks. "By placating, you're not actually doing them any service. So if you tell me, oh the South Side Community Art Center needs to be around, it's so important, you have to be able to explain to me why."

He implicates himself in these questions. "I'm putting the mirror not just up to the institution, I'm also putting it up to myself, because I am a part of that," he says. "I was not challenging the institution as much as the community that said they value the institution."

Majeed brings the lessons he learned at SSCAC, as well as in his subsequent Shacks and Shanties project, to his work with the Floating Museum. The Floating Museum was founded from a desire to forge a model that critiqued institutional spaces while also providing a platform between those institutions and smaller community spaces and artists. "Often museums are really hierarchical spaces, and we were thinking also about, both within our structure and our output, presenting different models and potentially challenging status-quo directing moves," says Floating Museum cofounder Hulsebos-Spofford. Their 2017 "River Assembly" project was a mobile museum filled with work by local artists that floated down and stopped at various points along the Chicago River. "If the whole city is a museum, or also a space of production, and people are thought of as valuable as these art materials we mess around with in our studios, how do those people and their stories and value come together with more traditional modes of art production?"

With the Shacks and Shanties project, Majeed built temporary structures that served as functional sculptures in vacant lots on the south side. After their erection, Majeed would largely give up ownership, allowing different artists and groups to activate the spaces with performances and other uses. "It was literally moving my curation, my approach to collaboration, to kind of makeshift infrastructure and my philosophy around giving up ownership," he says of the project. "That was incredibly informative to think about how to take the lessons of being in a building and then moving it out into a community space, where it's wide open. Who are the stakeholders of the space? So that's my contribution to the Floating Museum: how to build strong relationships with stakeholders, how to build trust, how to assess value."

The last time I spoke with Majeed, he had just finished a rehearsal at HPAC of the forthcoming performance of Push Pull. It was a beautiful spring day, and it was the first time the garage doors that line the sidewalk in front of the gallery were opened to the street. HPAC's curator, Allison Peters Quinn, told me that opening the garage doors is a "crowd-pleaser," though it doesn't make sense for most exhibitions. "That was always part of the plan for Faheem's show because he definitely wanted it to have that public art plaza feel, meaning that access, that anyone can come in and find the work," she says.

Majeed was awed by the effect the open doors had on the shroud, which must look like it did when the rubbings were being made last summer. "The wind is blowing in and the whole piece is moving," he says. Exposed to the open air, the shroud becomes less static, and a whole new audience, one that might never walk through HPAC's front door, could now easily engage with the work, maybe sparking fresh interest in the South Side Community Art Center. As Majeed says, "The piece looks like it's alive now."   v

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