One of the frequently packed spots on the north side of Chicago is Metropolis Coffee Company's Cafe, just south of Loyola University of Chicago's northside campus and only blocks from Sheridan Road and the beach. The small, local business is almost always full of people on the weekends; students, faculty and all kinds of other residents from at least three different nearby neighborhoods--Edgewater, Uptown, and East Rogers Park--keep the tables, sofas and stools full from the time it opens until it closes. Among the reasons I love dropping by there, in addition to serendity of running into colleagues, the free wireless and the delicious, affordable coffee, are the revolving art shows they mount, often on a monthly or bi-monthly basis.
When I was there yesterday, I quickly began admiring a series of striking ink drawings hanging on the walls in the main room, then spotted a flyer announcing that there was going to be an official opening. Right after that I noticed the staff moving chairs around, putting out hors d'oeuvres, and gently alerting people in the café that the opening was about to happen. I decided to stay, and as a result got to meet the artist, Julio Cesar Montaño (Montenegro), a native of Tumaco, Colombia. Below are a few (of my poor phone) photos of his work, which mostly comprises expertly drafted black-and-white ink drawings, some wood cuts, and a few multi-colored pieces (in ink and wash). They were arranged in various thematic sets and by different media. Many of the ones I looked at bore the collective title "Poemas Graficos de Negro," or "Black Visual Poems."
When we chatted, he told me that he also played the drums, and wrote poetry, so his poetic efforts weren't limited solely to visual art. He added that one of the main themes of the work was "resistancia" (resistance), cultural, political and spiritual, and when I asked him if the imagery drew upon iconography from the maroon communities of palenques in Colombia (which has the third largest population of people of African descent in the Americas, after Brazil and the United States--did you know that?), he said yes, and added that his artwork also was informed by various cultural myths, popular culture, and other sources. I think these sources are visible in some of the images below.
Googling him afterwards, I learned that he was an anthropologist, as well as the creator of the Festival del Currulao, a celebration of the important musics and dances of Pacific Coast Afro-Colombians. I also learned that he, his wife, schoolteacher Martha Arboleda Ortiz, and their son had relocated to the Chicago area, through the grace of local churches, after receiving death threats for their human rights work, which included promoting Afro-Colombian culture, trying to educate and promote street children and foster a countersphere to the civil and political violence that has wracked Colombia for 40 years, and founding an organization called Ecos del Pacífico Afro-Colombiano (EPA!) which includes a a dance academy, marimba school, cultural studies center and radio station. They spoke about it at a Call to Action conference last year.
The show runs until February 16, 2008, so if you're nearby, do check it out.
Update: Kai says in the comments section: "I think your phone photos have reproduced very well! Did you notice if there was a catalogue of his work, or whether he's published a book of his collected prints?" I did check yesterday and today, and there was no catalogue of his work available. On the small CV posted in the store, I didn't see any books listed either. Here's his posted statement on his work:
"Uso mancho de tintas para poner en escena evocaciones de la realidad, desde una mirada critica que permita poner a pensar a quien se sumerge en el contexto de cada obra...poema grafico." (Rough translation: I use the medium of ink and wash (stain) to evoke a critical perspective of reality, which allows anyone who submerges herself in the context of each work to start thinking about it...a visual poetry.)
The artist, Julio Cesar Montaño Montenegro
Poemas Graficos de Negro: "Rumba Pacifica" (ink and acrylic)
Poemas Graficos de Negro: "Renacientes" (ink and acrylic)
Poemas Graficos de Negro: Raices Profundos (ink)
Poemas Graficos de Negro: El poder del ancestro (ink)
Poemas Graficos de Negro: Personaje Mítico: "La tunda" (ink and cut paper)
A row of some of his pieces