By Maxwell Evans | Black Club Chicago
Nigerian-born painter Dayo Laoye always has relied on the generosity of South Siders to support his work. After twelve years tirelessly working to establish himself within the South Side’s Black arts scene, South Side Community Art Center co-founder Margaret Burroughs gave him several canvasses to use. They were musty and needed priming before he could use them, but they were a meaningful vote of confidence from one of the community’s most influential supporters of the arts.
Others who helped him include Laoye’s “limo” driver and Hyde Park neighbor, G.G. Jordan, who shuttled him around in a yellow cab for a decade to get to galleries and art supply stores — where business owners trusted him to get supplies on credit when he needed to.
“This is what community is,” said Laoye, who moved to the city 32 years ago. “It’s like an African village where you’ve seen people for so long, they become family and you trust them.”
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The South Side art community, its contributions to Black American culture and its African roots are all reflected in works by Laoye and photographer Ronald West in the exhibit “A Place in Time.”
The exhibit combines West’s photos of Black cultural icons with Laoye’s paintings of Black American culture’s African influences and the South Side’s natural beauty, Laoye said. It “speaks to, as artists, what makes us keep going: Community, the environment and the arts within,” Laoye said.
The show, curated by Laoye, runs until April 3 at the South Shore Cultural Center’s art gallery, 7059 S. South Shore Drive. Pieces displayed are available for purchase.
Laoye got his start as a graphic artist and cartoonist in Ibadan, Nigeria. He spent a few years studying fine arts as a painting major while working at advertising agencies in Lagos. He moved to Washington D.C. in 1988 to study at Howard University.
A piece from his time at Howard is the earliest work displayed for “A Place in Time”: “Sistah!,” an oil-on-canvas portrait of a Caribbean international student who epitomized late-1980s Black American style.
He then moved to California before ending up in Chicago in April 1990. Several months later, he met Roger Bob, a prominent Hyde Park hairstylist who dressed “from head to toe like an African chief or king,” Laoye said
Roger Bob wore a beaded crown representing the Maasai culture, a robe of Kente cloth and a hand-carved cane of ebony wood, Laoye said.
“I greeted him like you would greet an elder — ‘Hello sir, can I help you? I’m new here, too. Are you visiting?’” Laoye said. “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 teary” as Roger Bob, a Black American, explained he dressed as he did in order to be taken for an African chief. After all, “that’s what 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 piece came amid a resurgence of Afrocentrism in Black America, reflected in and energized by musicians like Queen Latifah and mainstream clothing labels like Cross Colours.
“At that time and all along, the African tradition and culture of militancy when it comes to being vocal” about one’s cultural roots was a crucial aspect of Black American culture, Laoye said.
Laoye’s featured work later in the 1990s and into the 2000s includes a painted door for the 10th anniversary of the African Festival of the Arts in 1999, and a 2003 cover for the Hyde Park Citizen that took an Afrocentric view of the September 11 anniversary.
The most recent works on display were completed after he recovered from a stroke suffered at the 2014 African Festival of the Arts. They include two pieces from 2018 of a “Town Cryer,” which represent the impacts of societal neglect on Black youth, and “therapeutic” paintings of flowers — his “muses” in 2020.
The South Side’s green space has boosted Laoye’s creativity and mental health throughout his time in Chicago, he said. Landscapes of Jackson and Washington parks are featured in the exhibit.
A nocturnal lap around Jackson Park’s Wooded Island in particular was a regular healing routine, as he would escape his studio to get in touch with his ancestors. “I see why some people are having a fit” at local leaders’ decision last summer to gate and lock the island at dusk, he said.
“Late at night if I can’t sleep, if I finish painting and I’m still hyper, I crossed the street at 2 a.m. and walked through it,” Laoye said. “Maybe I’ll go with my easel there this spring. … Oh, that place has healed me.”
Laoye’s longtime studio was in 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 hosted the studios of eight artists who would participate in the 57th Street Art Fair and other festivals, including Bayo Irihibogbe and Dalton Brown, Laoye said.
His works from his time at Wooded Isle include 12 canvases representing 12 views from the same spot in Jackson Park, all painted in one spot across Stony Island from his studio.
Together, they create a 360-degree panorama — but as the pieces were sold off individually, it’s unlikely collectors knew they were purchasing 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 crazy curator to detect that — I didn’t write it in no note or any journal,” Laoye said. “Someday, somebody will be doing a retrospective of this, and I’m not around to direct them … and they will scream, ‘I found something!’”
Much like Roger Bob, West — a photographer and retired professor of psychology and psychiatry — maintains the tradition of Black Americans honoring their African roots with their dress and cultural interests, Laoye said.
“Each time [West] appeared in class, [students’] eyes were wide open because he dresses African,” Laoye said. “Though born here, though there’s 400 years’ history of Africans here, his Africanness did not leave him, so to speak.”
West’s images celebrate the “pillars of the Black cultural community of Chicago” like Burroughs, jazz vocalist Dee Alexander, sculptor Marva Lee Pitchford-Jolly, African Festival of the Arts founder Patrick Saingbey-Woodtor and others.
His featured photos also include performing artists as they visited Chicago, including Erykah Badu and Nona Hendryx.
“Professor West not only captured the cultural icons — especially in visual arts — he captured the musicians too, especially those who talked seriously and candidly about Blackness in America,” Laoye said.