Column: Expo Chicago Offers a Reminder of the Vibrancy and Community of Chicago’s Art Scene

Attendees of Expo Chicago admire works by Luis A. Sahagún on April 12, 2024. (Angel Idowu / WTTW News)Attendees of Expo Chicago admire works by Luis A. Sahagún on April 12, 2024. (Angel Idowu / WTTW News)

As a Chicago native, there’s nothing that brings me more joy than being surrounded by the city’s arts community for a week full of activities celebrating creativity.

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From Expo Chicago at Navy Pier to Expo Art Week throughout the city and everything in between, I found myself overwhelmed with celebrations that amplified the city’s artistic community. 

My week started with two opening receptions. The first was at the Epiphany Center of the Arts, a converted church on Ashland Avenue in the West Loop that offers a wide range of free programming.

From live music to exhibition spaces, the converted prayer space was bustling Friday night during an opening reception celebrating the work of Jordan Porter-Woodruff. Her new exhibition, “Portraits: Working Hands,” is a continuation of a story I shared with you about the photographer in January 2023.

Unlike that first look, this was a culmination of those original pieces in addition to some newer ones that showcase the hands of Chicago workers. For instance, the “working hands” of Chicago hair beautician Leia of Leia Marie Beauty. The University of Chicago photographer has grown in her practice over the last year, showing her work at the Venice Biennale and she now also offers prints for those who want to get their own working hands on a piece of hers.

Friday night continued at Blanc, a gallery in Bronzeville, where a packed house celebrated the work of artist Lawrence Agyei and his exhibition “Drill” that showcases the city’s South Shore Drill Team. That exhibit runs through May 11.  

The following week when Expo Chicago and Expo Art Week activities formally began, I found myself at an opening reception at the Peninsula Hotel, where pieces from the Pizzuti collection, curated by Dara Pizzuti, were displayed throughout their second-floor lobby. That contemporary art exhibit was titled “A Journey.”

Observing and engaging with art can be overwhelming, so being able to take in the collection in this nontraditional space like a hotel amplified the goal of Expo Art Week’s mission, which is to cultivate nontraditional spaces that allow for creative appreciation. Those works will remain on display through mid-June. 

Over at Navy Pier, I found myself nearly every day, all day walking the long Expo aisles, taking in details I’d missed the day before.

On Friday, I attended a conversation with friends, where artists from New Orleans gave us a preview of their upcoming group show “Prospect.6” debuting this fall.

The panel included co-artistic director Ebony G. Patterson, who I first learned of at last year’s Expo through the moniquemeloche gallery. Featured artists included Didier William, Bethany Collins and Ashley Teamer. I was specifically intrigued by Teamer’s story, who shared how objects and sound can re-conceptualize spaces, an idea that steamed from growing up surrounded by family photos in her grandparents’ home in Louisiana. 

Out on the Expo floor, I talked with folks who were back for their annual visit and others who were there for the first time. One of those pairs was anesthesiologist Smitha Arekapudi and her mother. When asked how they were enjoying what they said to be their third Expo over the year, they said it’s the appreciation for community they leaned into. 

“Its a cool thing,” Smitha Arekapudi said. “After COVID life is different. So, it’s nice to be exposed to art all in one place.” 

Smitha Arekapudi and her mother visit Expo Chicago on April 12, 2024. (Angel Idowu / WTTW News)Smitha Arekapudi and her mother visit Expo Chicago on April 12, 2024. (Angel Idowu / WTTW News)

Oddly enough, we connected over a piece that was reflective of community, and one that was similar to a piece they said currently hangs in her mother’s home. 

I also spoke with Amanda Uribe of the LatchKey Gallery, which is based in New York. Their booth caught my eye from afar, because unlike the others, it was painted red. There I learned about an artist that grew up in Chicago, Luis A. Sahagún. 

“The title of this piece is called ‘Maria Bonita.’ He’s fusing the symbols of Catholicism with his ancestral history,” Uribe said. “What they believe is the power of healing. No negative or positive energy, just energy that doesn’t belong. So he’ll work with a person to help harness that energy and once that energy is harnessed, they have to create something new from it. So basically what we’re seeing is the end result of the healing process that he’s done. His family and him were construction workers here in Chicago, so this is honoring the history.” 

“Maria Bonita” by Luis A. Sahagún is displayed at Expo Chicago. (Angel Idowu / WTTW News)“Maria Bonita” by Luis A. Sahagún is displayed at Expo Chicago. (Angel Idowu / WTTW News)

Saturday night ended in celebration at the Ramova Theatre for Chance the Rapper’s Social Works. A newly renovated space that WTTW News visited earlier this year when the theater hosted a concert that celebrated not only the artist’s birthday but the celebration of new music. 

“That was the most people that ever sang me happy birthday,” Chance said after the celebratory song bellowed from the crowd.

Chance the Rapper at the Ramova Theatre on April 13, 2024. (Angel Idowu / WTTW News)Chance the Rapper at the Ramova Theatre on April 13, 2024. (Angel Idowu / WTTW News)

By Sunday, I found myself both tired and sad to be having to say goodbye to what had become my home away from home for the past week. With a sushi burrito and my black coffee in tow, I hit the long halls one last time for my final goodbye.

While on my walk, I ran into a Lincoln Park based couple who were also celebrating the last day of the fair. They were there celebrating the work of many artists, including visual artist Amanda Williams, who their daughter, Amanda Wills, assisted for Expo this year. 

“It’s great to see always the mix of what’s new and shifting in the art scene,” Lyra Jakavhazy said. “There’s more younger people and a newer crowd that is appreciating local and international art and how that crowd change every year.” 

Follow Angel Idowu on Twitter: @angelidowu3

Angel Idowu is the JCS Fund of the DuPage Foundation Arts Correspondent.

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