Thursday, September 8, 2016

UNUM - E Pluribis - Reflections on the Fifteenth Anniversary of 9/11

It has been 15 years since September 11, 2001, and this anniversary is an important time for reflection.   We commemorated this occasion with an exhibit on September 11, 2016.

Often artists make work as a respite from the times and contemporary issues, but the artists gathered here felt compelled to respond to the 9/11 attacks and the repercussions of those tragic events from which the world still reels. Through an unsentimental perspective, combined with beauty and craft, they call attention to, and offer opportunities for engagement about, topics ranging from drone strikes in Pakistan, to those detained without trial in Guantanamo, to the destruction and looting of ancient and contemporary culture from Iraq to Syria.  On this anniversary, we can ask “what have we learned?” and hopefully find answers that can inform our actions in the future.

The artists represented are Mahwish Chishty, Amber Ginsburg and Aaron Hughes, Jackie Kazarian, Michael Rakowitz, Alison Ruttan, and me, Barbara Koenen.

E Pluribus is an informal collective of artists who work independently and have joined together in recognition of this anniversary for a special project that offer exhibits of artwork and related programming, including artists talks and Story Corps interviews, to organizations that are working with people most impacted by the attacks – refugees, veterans, aid workers and their families.  We welcome your recommendations for organizations to contact.  

The exhibition is at UNUM, 3039 W. Carroll Avenue, 315, Chicago IL.  Sunday, September 11 from 11 - 2pm and by appointment.  312-909-5902. 


Mahwish Chishty


Trained in miniature painting in her native Pakistan, Chishty is inspired by the vibrancy of Pakistani truck art, which applies similar highly colored patterns to ordinary vehicles, but with the recognition of the tragedy of drone strikes that use unmanned vehicles to execute enemies without notice or trial.  Often, civilians are victims too. 

“The buzz of a distant propeller is a constant reminder of imminent death,” writes David Rhode in The Drone War. The authors of the Stanford-NYU human rights report, Living Under Drones, which is so far the most comprehensive report on the civilian impact of drone warfare, found that the sound of drones has a profound impact on the mental health of civilians.

Chishty’s upcoming project is “Naming the Dead”, an audio piece in which she asks American citizens to say the name of a Pakistani civilian of the same age and gender, who was a victim of a drone strike. Gathering data from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism website, her current list contains 354 names including two females and several children.

Chishty will have a solo exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London this fall.  Formerly an instructor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she recently joined the faculty at Kent State University.

Amber Ginsburg and Aaron Hughes, TEA PROJECT



One thing I miss is the cups. The detainees were only allowed to have Styrofoam cups, and they would write and draw all over them. I’m not totally familiar with Muslim culture, but I did learn that they don’t draw the human form, and I’m not positive if they draw any creatures, but they draw a lot of flowers. They would cover the things with flowers. Then we would have to take them. It was a ridiculous process. We would take the cups — as if they were writing some kind of secret message that they were somehow going to throw into the ocean, that would get back to somebody — and send them to our military intelligence. They would just look at these things and then throw them away. I used to love those little cups.– Former Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp guard, Chris Arendt (Perce, Lily. “What It Feels Be a Prison Guard at Guantánamo Bay.” Esquire Magazine, July 30, 2008.)

Amber Ginsburg and Aaron Hughes work collaboratively to uncover moments of beauty, poetics and shared humanity within little known military histories. Their Tea Project is an ongoing series of exhibitions, performances and discussions that offer counter-narratives to disrupt the numbing effects of war and detention and invite audiences a role in telling the story of our current involvement in war and torture.

Hughes, an artist and Iraq War veteran deployed to Kuwait and Iraq in 2003, developed Tea after a return trip to Iraq, as a civilian, in 2009.  It was during this trip he had tea prepared in the Iraqi tradition for the first time. In 2013, Hughes began collaborating with artist Amber Ginsburg.

Inspired by Arendt’s account, Ginsburg and Hughes created 779 porcelain cast Styrofoam cups, one for each individual detained. Each cup is scrawled with a design based on the national or a native flowers from one of the forty-nine countries that has or had a citizen detainee in Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp. In each design, the number of flowers represents the number of citizens detained from the respective country. Each cup is detailed with the name of one of the 779 individuals along with their citizenship. These vessels are used in exhibitions and performances of the Tea Project.

The stories within the performance traverse a variety of landscapes in which tea is served -- in the Iraqi countryside, a cage in Guantanamo Bay, a family gathering here in United States.  Tea is not only a favored drink but a shared moment that transcends cultural divides and systems of oppression.

Tea Library

Throughout the course of this project Amber Ginsburg and Aaron Hughes have researched tea, detention, terror, torture, pain, war, flowers, Islamic design, and the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp.  The Tea Library is a selection of their research books for your perusal.

Jackie Kazarian, Studies for Project 1915

To mark the centennial of the first major genocide of the 20th century, Jackie Kazarian created a monumental painting, Hayasdan, that honors the strength and resilience of the Armenian people and is intended to inspire others to confront hatred, prevent genocide and promote human dignity.    She made numerous studies for that painting, dating from 2014 and based on illuminated manuscripts, ancient maps and architecture from the Near and Middle East, and her own family artifacts.

As Post 9/11 conflict escalates, spreads and mutates, from Afghanistan and Iraq to Pakistan, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, and beyond, the lessons from the last century’s first genocide remain powerful and resonant. 

Jackie Kazarian’s paintings, drawings and wallpaper installations have been exhibited in Chicago, New York, Miami, Spain, Armenia, Vietnam and Japan. She has produced videos and installations in collaboration with Chicago dance companies The Seldoms and 58 Group.  Public art commissions include the U.S. Embassy, Armenia and the City of Chicago. Kazarian is a 2008 fellow of the Ellen Stone Belic Institute for the Study of Women and Gender in the Arts and Media at Columbia College Chicago. In 2010, she exhibited and conducted workshops in Syria for the U.S. State Department. Kazarian is a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (MFA) and Duke University (BS) and lives and works in Chicago.


Michael Rakowitz, Spoils

Michael Rakowitz launched Spoils in September 2011, a “culinary intervention” presented by Creative Time, in collaboration with Chef Kevin Lasko at Park Avenue Autumn in New York City. It was a meal of venison atop Iraqi date syrup and tahini (debes wa’rashi), and served on plates looted from Saddam Hussein’s palaces.  The event was covered in several media outlets.

The dishware had been looted after Saddam’s palaces were destroyed by Coalition Forces.  Personal household items such as plates and silverware were taken by Iraqi citizens, many of whom used them in their own homes—a dispersal of power.  The plates were purchased on eBay from two different sources: an active American soldier serving in the same unit that captured Saddam Hussein—and an Iraqi refugee now living in Michigan.

Rakowitz received a Cease and Desist letter demanding the “surrender of the Iraqi plates to the U.S. Attorney's office, Southern District of New York.”

On December 11, 2011, at the request of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and at the behest of US President Barack Obama, Saddam Hussein's dishes were repatriated to the Republic of Iraq during the meeting in Washington, D.C. to finalize plans for American withdrawal from Iraq and transfer of sovereignty. The plates traveled back to Baghdad on the same flight as the Iraqi Prime Minister.

Reports on the project's conclusion accompanied reports on the end of the Iraq War by various news outlets, including The New York Times, The Rachel Maddow Show.

Michael Rakowitz’s work often deals with Iraq, the country his grandparents fled in 1946. Over the years, he has re-opened his grandfather’s import/export business, remade artifacts stolen from the Iraqi National Museum, opened the first Iraqi-Jewish restaurant in the Arab world, staged an homage to the Beatles’ farewell concert on a roof in Jerusalem, and drawn parallels between genocide and gentrification in Chicago and Iraq.  His current project is A Desert Home Companion, a participatory performance and radio project involving American veterans from the Iraq War and the Iraqi refugee community, commissioned by the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program.  Rakowitz is on faculty at Northwestern University and represented by Rhona Hoffman Gallery.

Alison Ruttan, Green and White (end collapse) (Beirut) 2014 from “A Bad Idea Seems Good Again”

This sculpture is part of “A Bad Idea Seems Good Again,” Alison Ruttan’s ongoing investigation into the visual evidence of war and the damage inflicted on communities, begun in 2010.   It was part of a recent exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center.

Each hand built clay slab construction depicts a specific building bombed in recent conflicts, such as in – in Homs, Aleppo, Baghdad, and here, Beirut.   Based on photographic documentation and new sources, the series archives evidence that will soon be buried, bulldozed and carted away as new cities are built a top them. 

Ruttan notes that while they may look similar to the effects of natural disasters it is important to remember that these are not accidents of nature but entirely man made acts of destruction.  She also points out that while the subject of this work focuses on the destruction caused by war, specifically the damage that civilians endure, it is equally impossible to ignore how strange and interesting these images of destroyed cities are. Modernity's presence can be seen in the gridded structures revealed in the destruction as well as the directional movements within the collapses themselves. It is possible to see this work as a reflection on a failure in modernism, a failure to transform the Middle East into an image of ourselves.

Ruttan is a project-based artist who blends documentary and research practices with subjective interpretation across a wide range of media.  Questions relating to human nature circle all of her projects. "How far can you pare down visual stimulus and still have a sexual response?", "How much of our behavior is rooted in the core of our biological identity and how captive are we to these impulses?", "Why are we attracted to looking at violence?", " Can we evolve out of endless cycles of war and conflict?"

Ruttan offers a space in which to examine conflicting responses that may or may not be resolvable by the viewer, ultimately asserting we live in a "paradoxical nature of being" in which negotiating that condition is the true state of human nature.

Barbara Koenen, The War Rug Project

In 2001, when the US invaded Afghanistan, Barbara Koenen began making art installations inspired by the war rugs woven by Afghani women and the sand mandalas made by Tibetan Buddhist monks.

Afghan war rugs first appeared in the late 1970s, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.  Carpets traditionally woven by women and children began to incorporate pictures of the weapons that became part of their lives. Subtle at first, the military iconography eventually dominated the textiles, erasing all but the most incidental remnants of centuries of previous motifs. AK-47s form a framework for tanks, armored personnel carriers, mines, jets, grenades, handguns and bullets.   Replacing traditional motifs of flowers and stylized animals, the war rugs are a prime example of the corruption that war has on a civilization.   And since carpets are traditionally woven by women, who lack even the most basic freedoms in much of this region, their imagery is even more provocative and its origins more shrouded in mystery. Most rug dealers place little value in these cultural artifacts, and their origins are not well documented.

Adopting the practice of the Tibetan Buddhist monks who make elaborate sand mandalas as meditations or prayers that, like life, are swept away, Koenen began to reconstruct Afghan war rugs like mandalas, using spices instead of sand.  A meditation, they may take up to a week to complete. With fringe and popper firecrackers attached, they are touched, inhaled, sometimes even tread upon.  But they exist only temporarily.

At the conclusion of each installation, Koenen makes a series of monoprints in which the spices, and any footprints or distress, are adhered to cloth.  Up to three impressions are made as the imagery is dematerialized. 

Koenen found most of the war rugs listed for sale on Ebay, and uses those listing titles, such as "Twin Towers- Tribute Rug Carpet-9/11 2001- USA History"  for the installation and prints.  She has made 11 installations.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Update, June 2016

In 1993, a fellow named Mike Lash offered me the opportunity to work on a stained glass window exhibit at O’Hare Airport.  To assist with my research, he suggested I meet a Mr. Samuelson over in Landmarks.   Mr. Samuelson was very helpful.  He told me about the windows, the buildings they were from, the ways to conserve them, and how his friend Richard Nickel was arrested for saving a window from a Frank Lloyd Wright building.

Subsequent to that, we worked on Chicago’s first public art streetscape.  Tim gave historical background and I lead the process that commissioned 20 artists to create over 200 artworks in a 1.5 mile section of Martin Luther King Drive in historic Bronzeville.   We got it done in time for the 1996 Democratic Convention and I think Bill Clinton drove past.    Also with Tim’s help, I created the Chicago Tribute Markers of Distinction program, intended to commemorate the creations and innovations of Chicagoans - from Richard Wright to the Marx Brothers, Ida B. Wells and Enrico Fermi -  in the neighborhoods where they lived.  I wanted to inspire current residents and attract visitors to places they might not otherwise visit, like Archibald Motley’s little bungalow on W. 60th Street, Lorraine Hansberry’s girlhood home in Woodlawn, and the 2-flat greystone in Bronzeville that Lil Hardin bought for herself and her husband Louis Armstrong. 

When I moved to Cultural Planning, Tim and I curated the Tree Studios show (with Barton Faist) and in the process worked to save that historic building and tell the story of the artists it housed.  Behind the scenes, I conducted the Pilsen as an Art District Study, enlisting Artspace Projects and a local consulting firm to look at strategies for strengthening and uniting the nascent artist colonies in that fascinating and diverse neighborhood.   I assisted in various ways with Chicago’s first two city-assisted artist live/work developments – Switching Station Artists Lofts in East Garfield Park and ACME Artists Condominiums in Bucktown – and later provided counsel to the Bronzeville Artist Lofts, the Cornerstone Development Artists Housing in Washington Park, the Hairpin Artist Lofts in Avondale, Dorchester Artists Housing Cooperative and the Pullman Artist Housing – plus several projects that remained a gleam in a developer or an artist’s eye.

In addition to live/work space, I initiated the effort to designate the Cermak Creative Industry District, and tried to have it developed along the lines of Vancouver’s Granville Island – with artist live/work in the mix -  enlisting the support at varying times of the Urban Land Institute, Artspace Projects, the Campaign for Sensible Growth, and the National Endowment of the Arts.  Sadly, that project continues to languish.   I also worked with the Homan Square Foundation in envisioning the Powerhouse, Tower, and other buildings, engaging the Bruner Foundation and participating in an inspiring visit to Manchester Craftsman’s Guild.

In 2000, I married Tim (!), and conducted a study of the space and technical assistance needs of Chicago artists.  Two thousand people responded (via snail mail).  Using the findings from that initial research, I fundraised for and developed tools that would help artists help themselves -- the community-contributed, open-source Chicago Artists Resource website (2005 – present); the monthly Artists at Work Forums (Dancers at Work, Musicians at Work, etc.); the annual Creative Chicago Expo (2002 – 14); the monthly CAR Enewsletter; Square Feet Chicago, a 27-chapter artist’s guide to buying and leasing space adapted from Toronto Artscape, and other one-off programs that convened, connected and educated artists in all disciplines.   Notable among those one-offs are Ars Scientia (conversations between artists and scientists, including Temple Grandin and Apollo Robbins that took place during the Year of Science), and Studio Chicago, a year-long collaboration with the MCA, SAIC, Columbia College, and other groups around artists' space.

Through this I was able to work with amazing colleagues at the City -- in Cultural Affairs and other city departments and sister agencies.  They are too numerous to list, but all were special in many ways.  I was able to mentor “CAR artist-researchers” and interns, many of whom have gone on to remarkable achievements -- Jason Schupbach, Theaster Gates, Meida McNeal, Sara Schnadt, LaShawnda Storm Crowe, Tempestt Hazel, Laura Pearson, Mechelle Moe, Eiren Caffall, Britton Bertran, Tom Burtonwood, Baraka de Soleil, Leigh Fagin, Carmelita Tiu, Esther Kang and many more.   Not to mention my colleagues within City government.   I was part of two national cohorts of leaders in artist markets and support – the Tremaine Foundation and Leveraging Investments in Creativity – participating and hosting annual convenings, making presentations in New Orleans, Winnipeg, Toronto, Vancouver, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Houston, and elsewhere.  

In 2010-11, I fundraised for and conducted a second survey of artists’ needs, with 5,000 individuals responding, taking up to 45 minutes to complete a detailed survey.  Sadly, that work fell by the wayside during the change in administrations, but perhaps someone will find it of value sometime in the future.

In the past couple years, I’ve coordinated Chicago Artists Month, using it as a way to connect artists to each other and to local resources, funding, publicity and a platform for innovative projects in the neighborhoods.  CAM has featured a start-up ethnographic film series in Woodlawn, Art + Restaurant + Fashion Walks in Southeast Chicago, listening parties in the barbershop in Lawndale, crafting bees on Devon Avenue, and hundreds of other projects throughout the city.    And this year I was part of the DCASE team to produce the Lake FX Summit + Expo, which introduced our first A+R auditions, evening showcases, Teach-In, Festival of Chicago Film Festivals, Chick Crits and clinics to a robust array of workshops, panels and conversations with local and national arts leaders.

What a ride it has been.   It has been over 20 years that the City recognizes my service, and 23 years that I do.   I like to say I have worked for the City 19 1/2 years longer than I thought I would, and for much of that time I was amazed that I was actually being paid to do work that was so much fun and so rewarding, for a city I love and the artists and organizations who animate it in so many important and valuable ways.   I am always touched when some artist introduces themselves and tells me about how something or other really helped or impacted their life.  It is wonderful to have had the opportunity to make a difference.

Now it is time to retire.  I look forward to doing interesting things in the private sector and thank you all for the support you have given me during this wild, wild ride.   My last day, I believe, will be June 30, 2016.

All the best,

Barbara Koenen