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The Presidential Library Project: Black Presidential Imaginary addresses the long history of representations of a black president of the United States in visual culture, both comedic and aspirational, through contemporary art installation and institutional archives. The exhibition curated by Ross Jordan presents visual, performance, architecture, and discussions that proposes a participatory, decentralized, speculative, and multinarrative foundation for the future Obama Presidential Center.
The exhibition also highlights archives of documentary footage and contemporary artifacts invented from imagining the first black American President. Popular cultural images of black presidents include a selection of film and television representations, ranging from a film starring a seven-year-old Sammy Davis Jr. to Key and Peele’s “Anger Translator.”
The artists featured in this exhibition cover issues of policy, representation, and identity using strategies of archive, display, and bureaucracy. Zachary Fabri and Rashayla Marie Brown generate portraits of our popular imagination of black presidents noting that black political figures are always in relationship to constructed images in the public imagination. For example, the “terrorist fist bump” completely consumed the meaning and origins of the dap, which Lamont Hamilton carefully archives in his photographs of African American Vietnam War veterans. Aisha Cousins and Shonna Pryor create participatory and archival projects about black communities as self-determined and authoritative. Billy McGuinness projects an image of an archive of art produced by inmates in Cook County Jail at life-size scale and includes large canvas work documenting a trace of the masses of people moving in and out of the prison. Nate Young addresses the empty vessel that politicians construct and occupy to appeal to a larger public in order to remain in power. James Britt blends advertising aesthetics with an inescapably sardonic approach, similar to the tactics of black comedians. Deb Sokolow’s archive room, within this exhibition, speculates the inner-workings of messaging at a political/media/comedy event that was the meeting of the black presidential imaginary and the black presidential reality. In recent months, four southside grassroots organization have formed the Obama Library South Side Community Benefits Agreement Coalition, they present in the exhibition letters from Jackson Park community members that articulate the need for a community benefits agreement to support local residents during historic changes on the Southside in preparation for the actual presidential library to open 2021. Overall, the projects in this exhibition lay a multi-narrative foundation for how the first black presidency is remembered in the public imagination.
Presidential libraries and museums are notorious for obfuscating the historical truths found in their archives and for advancing a presidential and political agenda while diluting controversy, criticism and failure. Franklin Delano Roosevelt designed the first presidential library and museum on his own property in Hyde Park, New York in 1941. The Obama Presidential Center, to be built on Chicago’s South Side just blocks away from the Hyde Park Art Center, will be the fourteenth such structure, built with private funds and maintained with public money, dedicated to the preservation and presentation of the history of a presidential administration. The Presidential Library Project: Black Presidential Imaginary highlights both the racist and hopeful history of imagining a black president through archival and artistic encounters.
By presenting this project, the Art Center continues its support of emerging curators by providing the opportunity to showcase their ideas at a critical moment in their career, gaining visibility and creating connections in the arts community in Chicago and beyond. The guest curator of the exhibition, Ross Jordan, has been generating projects focused on the confluence of American politics, visual culture, and artistic production for the past several years. He is currently Curatorial Manager at Jane Addams Hull-House Museum.
Exploring the Black Presidential Imaginary: An Interview with Ross Jordan, Chicago Gallery News
The Presidential Library Project is generously supported by the
David C. and Sarajean Ruttenberg Arts Foundation.