DOWNTOWN — When WBEZ Chicago journalist Natalie Moore attended the opening night of the American Writers Museum new exhibit on Black writers, she said her 6-year-old daughter was particularly taken with a quilted portrait of Zora Neale Hurston by artist Dorothy Burge.
“The next day, she got a doll and she named it, ‘Zora,’” said Moore, who was part of a nine-member team advising on the exhibit.
“Dark Testament: A Century of Black Writers on Justice” opened last week at the museum, 180 N. Michigan Ave., 2nd floor. It features original artwork by four artists, augmented reality, and in-person and online content to celebrate the legacy of Black writers.
Tickets are available online at $14 for adults, $9 for seniors, students and teachers, and free for children.
To commemorate the exhibit, the museum will also organize events with contemporary Black authors and curricula for schools nationwide, especially schools in low-income areas.
Chicago-based artist Dorian Sylvain said outreach to young people is key to her work. “Dark Testament” allows the viewer to find threads in the history of Black activism, she said.
“How do we literally stand on the shoulders of those that came before us?” Sylvain said. “These people’s names need to be revered and honored and continued to be spoken about, hopefully driving curiosity and interest in young people, so that they … understand the connections of political, social, artistic struggles.”
“Dark Testament” has been in development for several years, extending back to the museum’s 2019 Frederick Douglass exhibit, which first sparked the idea, museum president Carey Cranston said. In examining Douglass’s post-Civil War writing, the museum staff was struck by the continued timeliness and relevance of the writing — even more so during the 2020 nationwide protests for racial justice, he added.
Alongside Sylvain, artists Bernard Williams, Dorothy Burge and Damon Reed created portraits of seminal Black writers for the exhibit. The portrait gallery, which is also available to view online, features Ida B. Wells, Ma Rainey, Langston Hughes, Pauli Murray and Malcolm X, among others.
Most visitors react right away to the portraits, Cranston said.
“Part of the idea was to make these larger-than-life portraits that overwhelm you a little bit when you walk into the space, so that you recognize visually and viscerally the impact that these people have had on our history and our culture,” Cranston said.
After viewing the portraits, museumgoers can visit adjoining gallery spaces that include multimedia content and explore the Black press, including The Chicago Defender.
Moore — who authored the 2016 book “The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation” — said she advocated for the exhibit to feature Black joy as well as activism.
“A lot of black writers are fighting politically. [The exhibit] is an embrace to the trials and tribulation that African Americans are facing,” Moore said. “It’s been important to my development as a writer as well, but we didn’t just want the pain and resistance to be in there.”
Sylvain said the exhibit features many of the “cultural heroes” from whom she drew inspiration as a young artist. Looking at “Dark Testament,” Sylvain also said she was reminded of many Chicago natives who were seminal to the fight for racial justice — both among those featured in the exhibit and those who helped assemble it.
She described Moore’s book as the “definitive” work on the South Side.
“These are people who are superstars, but to the community, they are from us,” Sylvain said of the featured writers. “These are people who were about community, who helped envision a brighter, more productive community, and who were active within their artistic practice to help move that vision forward.”
The museum is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday to Monday.
Listen to “It’s All Good: A Block Club Chicago Podcast”: