In ‘A Place In Time,’ a painter and photographer explore Africa’s give-and-take with black American culture
SOUTH SHORE – Nigerian-born painter Dayo Laoye has always relied on the generosity of the South Siders to support his work.
After twelve years of working tirelessly to establish herself within the South Side black art scene, Margaret Burroughs, co-founder of the South Side Community Art Center, gave her several canvases to use. They were moldy and needed dressing before he could use them, but they were a significant vote of confidence from one of the community’s most influential supporters of the arts.
Others who have helped him include Laoye ‘limousine’ driver and Hyde Park neighbor GG Jordan, who ferried him around in a yellow taxi for a decade to the galleries and shops of art supplies – where business owners trusted him to get supplies on credit when he needed them.
“That’s what community is,” said Laoye, who moved to the city 32 years ago. “It’s like an African village where you see people for so long, they become family and you trust them.”
The South Side’s artistic community, its contributions to Black American culture, and its African roots are reflected in the works of Laoye and photographer Ronald West in the “A Place in Time” exhibit.
The exhibit combines West’s photos of black cultural icons with Laoye’s paintings of African influences from Black American culture and the natural beauty of the South Side, Laoye said. It “speaks, as artists, of what keeps us going: the community, the environment, and the arts within,” Laoye said.
The exhibit, curated by Laoye, runs through April 3 at the South Shore Cultural Center Art Gallery, 7059 S. South Shore Drive. The pieces shown are available for purchase. Laoye and West will give an artist talk, moderated by Devorah Crable1 p.m. Sunday in the gallery of the cultural center.
Laoye got his start as a graphic designer and cartoonist in Ibadan, Nigeria. He spent a few years studying fine art as a painting major while working in advertising agencies in Lagos. He moved to Washington DC in 1988 to study at Howard University.
A piece from his time at Howard is the first work on display for “A Place in Time”: “Sistah!”, an oil-on-canvas portrait of an international student from the Caribbean who embodied the black American style of the late 1900s. 1980s.
He then moved to California before ending up in Chicago in April 1990. Several months later he met Roger Bob, a prominent Hyde Park hairdresser who dressed “from head to toe like an African chief or king “, said Laoye.
Roger Bob wore a beaded crown representing the Maasai culture, a Kente cloth robe and a hand-carved ebony cane, Laoye said.
“I greeted him as you would greet an elder – ‘Hello sir, can I help you? I am new here too. Are you visiting? “Said Laoye. “He smiled; he looked at me and said in this very deep voice, ‘No, my son. I’m from here.
Laoye said he was “moved and in tears” when Roger Bob, a black American, explained that he had dressed as he had to be mistaken for an African chief. After all, “that’s who I am,” he told Laoye.
“African Chief,” a portrait of Roger Bob displayed at the South Shore Cultural Center exhibit, was completed in 1990. The work came amid a resurgence of Afrocentrism in Black America, reflected and energized by musicians like Queen Latifah and mainstream clothing brands like Cross colors.
“At that time and from the beginning, the African tradition and culture of activism when it came to speaking” of its cultural roots was a crucial aspect of black American culture, Laoye said.
Laoye’s featured work in later 1990s and 2000s includes a door painted for the 10th anniversary of the African Arts Festival in 1999, and a revival in 2003 for the citizen of hyde park who took an Afrocentric view of the 9/11 anniversary.
The most recent works on display were completed after he recovered from a stroke suffered at the African Arts Festival 2014. They include two 2018 pieces from a “Town Cryer,” which depict the impacts of societal neglect on black youth, and “therapeutic” paintings of flowers — his “muses” in 2020.
The green space on the South Side boosted Laoye’s creativity and mental health throughout his time in Chicago, he said. Landscapes from Jackson and Washington parks are featured in the exhibit.
A nightly spin around the wooded island of Jackson Park in particular was a regular healing routine, as he escaped his studio to connect with his ancestors. “I see why some people are having a meltdown” at local leaders’ decision last summer to shut down and lock down the island at dusk, he said.
“Late at night, if I can’t sleep, if I’m done painting and I’m still hyperactive, I cross the street at 2 a.m. and cross it,” Laoye said. “Maybe I’ll take my easel there this spring. … Oh, this place healed me.
Laoye’s longtime studio was at the Wooded Isle Apartments, 5750 S. Stony Island Ave. He lived and worked there for 25 years before moving his practice to studios in Washington Park and Bridgeport.
In the early 1990s, the Wooded Isle building housed the studios of eight artists who would participate in the 57th Street Arts Fair and other festivals including Bayo Irihibobbe and Dalton BrownLaoye said.
His works from his time in Wooded Isle include 12 canvases depicting 12 views of the same location in Jackson Park, all painted in one location across Stony Island from his studio.
Together they create a 360 degree panorama – but as the pieces were sold individually collectors are unlikely to know they were buying parts of a whole. Laoye frequently includes “tricks” like this in his works, to entertain himself and maintain his sanity, he said.
“It would take a mad curator to detect that – I didn’t write it down in any notes or journals,” Laoye said. “Someday someone will do a retrospective of this, and I’m not here to direct it…and they’ll be screaming, ‘I found something!'”
Much like Roger Bob, West — a photographer and retired professor of psychology and psychiatry — upholds the tradition of black Americans honoring their African roots with their clothing and cultural interests, Laoye said.
“Every time [West] appeared in class, [students’] the eyes were wide open because he dresses as an African,” Laoye said. “Although born here, although there is 400 years of African history here, his Africanness has not left him, so to speak.”
West’s images celebrate ‘pillars of Chicago’s black cultural community’ like jazz singer Burroughs Dee Alexandersculptor Marva Lee Pitchford-Jollyfounder of the African Arts Festival Patrick Saingbey-Woodtor and others.
His featured photos also include performers during their visit to Chicago, including Erykah Badu and Nona Hendryx.
“Professor West didn’t just capture cultural icons – especially in the visual arts – he also captured musicians, especially those who spoke seriously and candidly about Blackness in America,” Laoye said.
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