Toward Common Cause: Upcoming Exhibit at the Smart Museum

By Katherine Sinyavin

In commemoration of the MacArthur Fellows Program 40th anniversary, the Smart Museum of Art is organizing a multi-site exhibit called Toward Common Cause: Art, Social Change, and the MacArthur Fellows Program at 40. Expected to be on exhibition during Summer and Fall 2021, this exhibit will focus on the art of MacArthur fellows whose work is concerned with social and political issues. The University of Chicago’s Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS) is playing an integral role in organizing this exhibit by working with Amalia Mesa-Baines and Wendy Ewald, two of the fellows whose projects are directly related to Latin America.

“It’s important to us at CLAS to find ways to connect students to Latin America beyond reading about it. One of the ways that we can do so is by working with Latin American immigrants and their descendants. You can’t study Latin America without considering its connection to the United States,” Natalie Arsenault, associate director of CLAS, says. “It is great that we can provide our students with a hands-on opportunity that provides this connection here in the city of Chicago.”

CLAS is the hub for events, research, and studies related to Latin America on campus. The center supports faculty research about Latin America, offers degree programs, provides funding and teaching opportunities to graduate students, and hosts public events. Arsenault explains that SMART contacted CLAS during the summer of 2019 and asked if CLAS faculty, students, and staff would like to be involved in helping create the exhibit.

In response to the offer, Diana Schwartz Francisco, Assistant Instructional Professor at CLAS, created a class for the Spring Quarter 2020 called “Art and the Archive in Greater Latin America.”

“This class was designed to engage students in questions central to collecting and creating in artistic production, focusing on the particular histories and politics of Greater Latin America - a concept that includes places and peoples throughout the Western Hemisphere,” Schwartz Francisco says. “It also prepared students for future work in community-based and social-justice art projects.”

The class provided College students with the necessary background and analytical tools to do a CLAS internship, which gave them the opportunity to work with the artists whose work will be included in the exhibit. The student interns worked directly with the artists as well as community organizations, including the Centro Romero and the Casa Michoacán.

Mesa-Baines’s contribution will be an installation called Dos Mundos, which centers Mexicans in Chicago by following the history of both place and people. Drawing from both private and public archives, it will contain maps, lightboxes, and handmade books. Ewald will be showing a collaborative photographic project that explores the visual imaginations of children and adults hailing from Mexico.

During the summer, the four student interns worked with Ewald and the youth at Centro Romero by transcribing and translating interviews, as well as planning projects. The interns collaborated with Mesa-Baines at the end of August, to assist her with archival research and in selecting photographic and textual sources for the installation.

“This project brings together artists, students, faculty, and community members who might not usually come together and allows us to provide students with internships they might not normally be able to get. This project has allowed us to partner with the SMART, which we have not partnered with before. It has given us access to these artists who have social justice projects and to community organizations and has allowed our students to have a foot in the door of this larger exhibition for next year,” explains Arsenault.