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Dominican grad brings exhibits to DuSable Museum

Saturday, December 2, 2017

A Dominican University graduate has brought a pair of art exhibitions to the DuSable Museum of African American History that are breaking new ground through both their artistry and their attention to overlooked perspectives on black history.

Clinée Hedspeth '12 is director of public programming and education at DuSable, the oldest independent African American history museum in the United States. She grew up in a family of fine art collectors, and as one of the very few African American certified art appraisers, has made it her mission to rediscover, document and promote work by black artists.

"I see it as pure advocacy," she says. "It's a very intimate profession as well. You're looking at people's materials. And sometimes it's just validating that it was a good thing for them to keep it. You exist, you're important, you're family's important, so keep it."

As part of that mission, she put together two exhibitions that offer thoughtful new perspectives on two very different, but similarly neglected subjects: South Side Chicago architecture and the black female experience during the 16th and 17th centuries. Both are showing through February 2018 at DuSable.

One of the shows, Rewriting History, is the first solo museum exhibition for Fabiola Jean-Louis, a Haitian-born mixed-media artist based in New York. The collection of photographs places the black female form in the exquisite period gowns worn by European nobility. Astonishingly, the artist created the garments entirely out of paper, giving the scenes a sense of fragility. She fitted them on models and photographed them in poses reminiscent of paintings by the great masters.

In a haunting juxtaposition of beauty and horror, some of the works include depictions of the torture inflicted on black bodies during slavery and Jim Crow. One of the portraits, Madame Beauvoir's Painting, shows a woman gazing at a famous historical image of a former slave revealing the scars on his back for photographers during the Civil War. The woman herself has a similar pattern of welts on the back of her dress, as if to say even the finest fabric and societal standing cannot obscure the wounds of the past.

Hedspeth is especially drawn to the work because it gives attention to the overlooked black female experience of slavery and the black female body, which was used to expand the slave labor force through childbirth.

"There is no chapter in a mainstream history book that explains how America got the wealth that would make it a superpower," she says. "It's through the black female body."

The other exhibit, Chicago: A Southern Exposure, is the first major show dedicated to South Side architecture. It's made up of photographs by Lee Bey, a former Chicago Sun-Timesarchitecture critic who is now also serving on DuSable's leadership team, as a vice president.

With photos of homes, churches, businesses and schools, the exhibit brings into focus a part of the city that has long been ignored by architecture writers and the tourists who flock to Chicago to see architectural gems by the likes of Daniel Burnham and Mies Van der Rohe.

Hedspeth said it was a challenge to choose just a few images from so many stunning photographs in Bey's body of work. While examining them on a recent afternoon when the museum was closed and quiet, she chuckled at how Bey will often include a passerby or part of a car in an otherwise "clean" architectural image.

"It's like, Why? Take the car out; nobody wants to see that," she said with a laugh. "But he's like, 'No, my mission is to show that this is like an everyday space you walk by.'"

There are some striking images, especially from the historic Pullman neighborhood with its grand houses and curved, two-story colonnaded apartment buildings. It's hardly the impression outsiders have of the South Side.

Both shows present their stories in an alternative voice, which is what Hedspeth is all about. At Dominican she double-majored in black world studies and philosophy and developed a love of history and activism. In her bio on DuSable's website, she describes herself as a "zealous advocate for history."

As a newly certified fine art appraiser (she passed the grueling 15-hour exam this past summer) she's joined the ranks of cultural gatekeepers who are able to formally add works of art to the historical record through appraisals accepted by the IRS. "It's forcing the government to say, 'OK, this is legitimate. This is a legitimate American artist,'" she said.

"Being an African American fine art appraiser, I'm helping create the canon," she added, explaining that only two black American artists have catalogues raisonnés, the books that serve as the official record of all known works by an artist.

Those exhaustive catalogues typically take more than a decade of painstaking research to assemble. With her expertise in early 20th century African American art, she's uniquely positioned for such detective work.

"Being part of that community helps," she said. "You need to know that you have to check church rosters, obituaries, who in the black community in Bronzeville was showing art, even which gangs where active where. The Vice Lords on the West Side at one time actually had art studios. Most people don't know that."

Hedspeth owns her own business, Hedspeth Art Consulting, which is located in the Bridgeport Art Center. She offers appraisal services and artist representation. She just signed Jean-Louis and Bey, and will take both exhibitions on the road for other shows around the country.

She has a range of clients from big foundations with deep pockets to grandmothers on the West Side who tell of possible unknown treasures hidden in their basements and attics.

"When I go into people's homes it just affirms for me that's where museums started, that's where language starts," she says. "We should respect that and not just cast it aside."

Her email inbox is flooded with queries. One came from a man in his 90s living in East Chicago, Indiana, who said he wanted to put together a show of his work. Hedspeth was skeptical, but discovered that sure enough he had been a significant artist during the 1950s, '60s and '70s before he tumbled into obscurity and fell on hard times. With her help, the artist, Clifford Joseph, experienced a bit of a revival. They put on a one-day pop-up show at DuSable and sold a few of his paintings, one of them for $80,000. That 60-year-old piece, once forgotten about, ended up in a show at the Tate Modern in London this fall thanks to Hedspeth's intervention.

"That was one moment where I'm like, okay, I'm on the right path; I'm doing the right thing. The downside is now he thinks I can work magic all the time," she says with a laugh.