LINCOLN PARK — Wrightwood 659 kicked off its new season Friday with exhibits showcasing photographs of Black, gay Chicagoans in the ’80s; a cyberpunk, imaginary world where past and future collide; and images by a Bangladeshi photographer.
The art gallery, which was converted from a four-story apartment building at 659 W. Wrightwood Ave., will showcase its spring/summer exhibitions through July 15.
Alphawood Exhibitions at Wrightwood 659 is presenting the galleries. Tickets, which grant access to all three exhibitions, cost $15 and can be bought on Wrightwood 659’s website.
This season’s exhibitions:
- “Patric McCoy: Take My Picture,” which features 50 photos of Black, gay men in the ’80s taken by the South Side native.
- “Kongkee: Warring States Cyberpunk,” a luminous exhibition combining ancient poetry, modern anime and electronic art.
- “Shahidul Alam: Singed But Not Burnt,” which features photographs spanning four decades of the renowned photojournalist, teacher, writer and activist’s career.
Read more about each exhibition:
‘Take My Picture’
The images in “Take My Picture” came to be from a promise by McCoy, a Woodlawn native, to teach himself photography by carrying his first 35-millimeter camera everywhere and never denying people’s requests for a photo.
An avid cyclist, McCoy would bike 12 miles to and from work each day with his camera around his neck. People would stop him and half-jokingly ask for him to take their picture, and he’d always oblige, he said.
On McCoy’s way home from work, he’d stop as his father’s house, which had a darkroom in the basement that McCoy would use to develop the photos, he said. The next day, he’d return them to his subjects, and the cycle continued.
McCoy’s photos were a hit at the Rialto Tap, a now-defunct gay bar in the South Loop that attracted all kinds of men, from Downtown professionals to drag queens, gangsters and unhoused people, he said.
“Once people in the Rialto saw I was always going to take their picture and, in a day or so, I’d be able to give it to them, they just went wild,” McCoy said. “I became the photographer for the place.”
McCoy’s gallery showcases those images, captured during a crucial 10-year period in the ’80s before any of his subjects were aware of the tragedy to come with the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
“I got kind of teary-eyed seeing the photos in the exhibition,” McCoy said during a preview Thursday. “Some of these people have gone, and they were close to me. And to see most of them go at a young age and recognize today they didn’t have to. If the work had been done to deal with HIV and AIDS 10+ years earlier, they would be alive.”
McCoy talked about his subjects by their names, sharing memories and their backstories.
One of “the Youngbloods,” for example, would pivot from a “straight as an arrow, masculine-presenting” man into a “total drama queen” the second he entered the bar, McCoy said.
Or the Rialto worker who had spent decades in jail and worked as the bar’s bouncer when he got out, McCoy said.
“So many stories,” McCoy said.
McCoy never instructed his subjects on how to pose, giving the images a more candid feel and giving the people agency over how they were portrayed, he said.
“I wanted them to just be themselves,” McCoy said. “In that, I hope people take away the beauty of Black men. In our natural state, we are very beautiful people.”
Wrightwood 659 will host an evening with McCoy 5:30-8:30 p.m. May 4. Tickets are $40 and available on the gallery’s website.
‘Warring States Cyberpunk’
In “Warring States Cyberpunk,” Chinese artist and animation director Kong Khong-chang, known as Kongkee, tells the story of legendary poet Qu Yuan, who lived during the Warring States Period when rival Chinese states battled for territorial advantage and dominance.
Kongkee’s exhibition imagines what would happen if Yuan’s soul journeyed from the ancient Chu Kingdom to a retro-futuristic Asia where he’s reborn as an android. The product is a psychedelic cyperpunk story told through multi-screen videos, wall projections, neon installations, graphic art, narrative texts and ancient Chinese objects.
“Qu Yuan’s poetry has a psychedelic, wandering quality that I tried to reflect in my art, but I also wanted him to reflect the disorientation, as well as the hope, of our era,” Kongkee said.
Visitors will learn about Yuan, who was one of ancient China’s most revered poets and who is believed to have been a trusted adviser of King Huai of Chu until the poet was banished.
Yuan drowned himself in the Miluo River, but Chinese people celebrate him yearly during the Dragon Boat Festivals, which started as a search for his body.
Kongkee uses his art to resurrect the poet’s soul by transforming him into an android who struggles with memories of his past life. Android Yuan ponders the duality of death and immortality, the body and the soul and what it means to be human or machine.
“Like the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, ‘No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man,'” Kongkee said. “I asked myself what happens when a soul emerges after 2,000 years from underwater. Does it seek out something new? Does it return to familiar places?”
Android Yuan’s journey sees the poet become a pop icon, reconcile with the reincarnated King Huai of Chu and confront the ghost of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, whose conquest of Yuan’s homeland led to his death.
Kongkee “brilliantly draws ancient artworks into his own dazzling vision, revealing how the past haunts the present and helping us imagine what a vibrant strain of ‘Asian Futurism’ can look and feel like — one full of energy, music and color that creatively entwines the enigma of the past with caution toward cutting-edge technologies,” said Abby Chen, who organized the exhibition as senior associate curator of contemporary art at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.
Kongkee will give an exhibition tour 12:30-1:30 p.m. Saturday. Tickets cost $15 and are available on Wrightwood 659’s website.
‘Singed But Not Burnt’
Wrightwood 659 is hosting Alam’s work again for a look at his four-decade photojournalism career with more than 80 images coming from his extensive archive in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Alam is a self-taught photographer who started by documenting street protests in Bangledesh in the early ’80s. Since then, he’s used the art form as a tool to resist political corruption and document the struggle for democracy.
“Singed But Not Burnt” features a mix of portraits, landscapes, and scenes of daily life, strife and resistance in the “Majority World,” a term Alam coined to describe “developing countries” in the Global South.
The exhibition is organized into sections that correspond with pivotal moments in Alam’s life.
The first gallery features “Motijheel Hartal,” a photograph from Nov. 10, 1987, that depicts the day activist Noor Noor Hossain and hundreds of protestors were killed during Lt. Gen. Hussain Muhammad Ershad’s regime.
Alam has spent nearly 50 years documenting Bangladeshi people’s resilience and struggle for freedom. Throughout the exhibition, visitors will see the cyclical rise and dismantling of autocratic regimes, the dangerous effects of loose labor regulations, civil rights abuses, extreme class differences and conflicts instigated by the state.
The title comes from Alam’s practice as a journalist, trying to get as close to the story while maintaining safety.
“As journalists, we are always pushing, trying to get to the edge,” Alam said. “Sometimes it gets dangerous, but it is a fine balancing act because in trying to be safe, you run the risk of being ineffective. In trying to be effective, you run the risk of getting burnt.
“It’s about finding the balance in between where you’re singed but not burnt.”
Alam has spent his life campaigning for social justice and often challenged the global dominance of white, Western media. He founded Majority World, an agency that works with photographers from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East to create equal opportunities for photographers from underrepresented groups.
A different selection of Alam’s work was featured at Wrightwood 659 during the gallery’s winter exhibition, which reflected on his time being imprisoned for 107 days and tortured after criticizing his government. He is out on bail and faces up to 14 years of imprisonment if convicted, he said.
“Throughout his nearly 50 years of documenting social injustice, Shahidul Alam brings alive issues too often unreported,” said Ina Puri, curator of the exhibition. “The lens of the photographer remains focused on the under-represented and never wavers, creating searing visual images that will linger forever in one’s consciousness.”
Alam will give a lecture on his work 6-7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the South Asia Institute, 1925 S. Michigan Ave. Tickets cost $10 and are available on Wrightwood 659’s website.
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