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Mapping Race Relations


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Two years ago Paula Henderson came across a quote from a 1938 Federal Housing Administration manual: "If a neighborhood is to retain stability, it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes." She started looking for redlining maps after talking to her daughter, who was writing a dissertation on the history of race relations in a Chicago suburb. When she found one from the 1930s that divided Chicago into color-coded areas, the white neighborhoods were white, and the black ones--where the FHA wouldn't insure mortgages, according to the map--were filled with black and red. Henderson's 17 paintings and drawings at Linda Warren--large, enigmatic diagrams with forceful designs and colors--stemmed from this research.

Among the first works Henderson made after finding the map were paintings based on sports stadium seating diagrams, which she configured like mandalas. "Sports seem to be the nexus of so much to do with race and class," she says. "I've known professional players through friends and my children--my daughter is married to a former Bear." One young pro who was cut by the Bears but wanted to continue playing told stories about the "cattle calls" he attended: the players had to wear briefs, and team officials would handle their muscles. "Black players would refer to it as this high-priced slave block," Henderson says. "Sports spectators are mostly white, and the players are mostly black. People watch religiously--and some yell at the players as if they own them." The floor designs of the basketball court at the center of Mandala III suggest the heads and shoulders of two black players. And the borders of Schemata IV's white-on-black design, surrounding a high school basketball court at the center, repeat diagrams of NBA floors, reflecting "the squeeze of the professional machine on young guys."

I didn't recognize the sources of Schemata IV, though Henderson says some basketball fans have. But its combined assertiveness and hermeticism almost cries out for decoding. Most works in the show seem to challenge the viewer to figure out their meanings, some of which come through without explanation in At Home II. Five differently colored figures arrayed as if dancing are repeated in 12 groups superimposed on architectural floor plans, changing places in each depiction, the distinctions between them seeming to dissolve. Henderson uses repetition to suggest oneness, as in the 12 images of seesaws, each holding a black and a white figure, in Toile: Domestic Balance III: the figures are unbalanced in the top row, but they're all perfectly balanced at the bottom.

Henderson became aware of race and class growing up in the Boston suburbs in the 1950s, meeting inner-city kids as a tutor and reacting against a racist uncle who was a Boston police detective. At the University of Massachusetts at Amherst she became interested in politically minded Mexican muralists, and her two favorite professors, one Colombian and the other Chinese, "always talked about art in its relationship to world history, to the class struggle." She met her African-American husband in college in 1970, and her relationship with him made her even more aware of race. "Black men were getting arrested on Fridays by the campus police and released on Mondays," she says. "The standard joke was that this was to keep white girls safe."

The deeper subject of these works, however, is Henderson's religious faith. Her husband, a third-generation Baha'i, is now a Baha'i official; Henderson converted a few months after they met. "I was attracted to the Baha'i faith because it teaches the oneness of all religions and of all peoples," she says. She switched from figurative to nature-inspired work in the 80s, when she began a series of paintings that included water and its reflections, influenced by the teachings of Baha'i founder Baha'u'llah, "who talks about how everything down to the smallest atoms has been affected by the revelation of the divine." Baha'i attitudes toward race are a consequence of this unifying worldview, and like the Baha'i abstract painter Mark Tobey, whose work Henderson loves, she uses repeating patterns to express her beliefs.

Henderson also includes several maps. In Chicago: The Extended ReMix, she rearranged the city's neighborhoods. "I thought, 'What would happen if Garfield Park were next to the Gold Coast?' One of my students from Humboldt Park was excited to see it--he said, 'Now I get to live by the lake.'"

Paula Henderson: Schematic Patterns

Where: Linda Warren, 1052 W. Fulton

When: Through 4/2

Info: 312-432-9500

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