GRAND BOULEVARD — An interactive exhibit exploring the Black diasporic experience with water is the latest exhibition to open at Fortunehouse Art Center.
In “Wishing Well,” artist Mechiya Jamison takes a closer look at the complicated relationship between Black people and water, from their spiritual connection to the element to the concept of water justice and the fight for access in predominantly Black neighborhoods on the South and West sides. The exhibit runs through May 25 at the art center, 4410 S. Cottage Grove Ave.
Jamison’s connection to water came when she started community gardening as a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“The garden was a place where I could just let go of everything,” said Jamison, who was born in Chicago but grew up in Atlanta. “My mom had passed away when I was 15, and my relationship with my dad was strained then.
“It was during [college that] I was able to just be held by something and trust something that was always going to be there. That was Lake Michigan.”
While studying urban studies and public policy at UIC, the artist spent a lot of time with cultural centers on campus, where she learned about environmental injustice. Those lessons not only made her cherish water more, but empowered her to fight for it on behalf of those must vulnerable, she said.
Jamison’s interactive exhibit serves as an entry point for people interested in learning about the power dynamics surrounding water in a way that isn’t intimidating or pretentious, she said.
“Wishing Well” will allow visitors to engage with exhibits by simply touching them. Visitors will also see a multimedia water timeline displaying how Black people have reclaimed and recouped their relationship with water.
“All of my work is grounded in environmental justice organizations on the ground who work so that we can support and sustain the solutions that are being made on a political front, but also on a spiritual, personal, interpersonal front, as well,” said Jamison, a RAY Fellow.
Black Chicagoans are particularly vulnerable to the politics of water. In September, the Guardian reported that one in 20 tests performed on the city’s tap water revealed the presence of lead at or above federal government limits, and nine of the 10 ZIP codes with the largest percentages of high test results were neighborhoods with majority Black and Hispanic residents.
Dozens of homes had “shockingly high” lead levels, with one in South Chicago having lead levels of 1,100 parts per billion, 73 times the Environmental Protection Agency limit, the Guardian reported.
In January 2022, WBEZ reported Black neighborhoods had 10 times the water debt of their white counterparts. A joint project from Elevate and the Metropolitan Planning Council found the city’s water debt was the result of new charges and delinquent bills, a sign that the utility had increasingly become unaffordable for Black residents..
“I don’t think people understand the way that water shutoffs affect your whole entire being,” Jamison said. “If we don’t start naming water as a right and not a privilege, everything we do from that point forward will go down the drain.
“Water is not something that can be contained physically, spiritually or emotionally. No one person has a right to tell another person when and where and how they retrieve water.”
Jamison hopes “Wishing Well” will inspire people to take what they’ve learned — and the list of actionable items they’ll receive — back to their communities to help.
Companion events are planned for the exhibit, including a Black Girl Environmentalist meetup and a screening of “Whose Water?,” a documentary written and directed by Kate Levy that chronicles the connection to access to safe, clean water and sanitation while following community organizers fighting for that access. The free event is 6-9 p.m. Sunday.
People interested in learning more about “Wishing Well” and attending the companion events can visit the Fourtunehouse Art Center website.
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