Layering stories: Alexandra Antoine connects with the African diaspora through her artistic practice
For artist and educator Alexandra Antoine, learning about traditional art practices has been a pathway to building intergenerational connections not just in Chicago, but around the world. To date, his creative talents have been cultivated across the African continent in Mali, Benin and Kenya, and across the Caribbean in Cuba and Haiti.
“When I travel, I see what it takes to learn the art from traditional masters. Learning from craftsmen who hail from a specific region is more observational and requires active listening. You have to be able to watch, listen , to feel and be present in front of the work in front of you”, explains Antoine.
Nurturing his skills in art forms passed down for generations and across cultures – including woodworking, weaving, collage, beadwork, painting and printmaking – Antoine often depicts people from the diaspora African in the larger narrative of her Haitian identity. She attributes her interest in traditional artistic practices to her maternal grandparents, whom she visited regularly in her family’s place of origin in Léogâne, Haiti, a coastal community west of the country’s capital in Port. -to the Prince.
In addition to his artistic practice, Antoine is also a certified teacher in Illinois. “I wanted to teach students about art within the African diaspora and a lot of my curriculum was global,” says Antoine, retracing how she grew up as an educator. “With all the global experiences I’ve had, it was important to me to share that knowledge with students, especially at the predominantly African-American schools where I’ve taught, like Dett Elementary, North Lawndale College Prep, and Pirie Elementary. It is important that students see art that represents you.
Antoine grew up in Miami and moved to Chicago in 2012 to study at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She graduated with a degree in fine arts, majoring in arts education, in 2014. She didn’t know anyone in the city when she first moved there, but expanded her network by volunteering and by exhibiting his work in institutions such as the Artists’ Cooperative. Residency & Exhibitions (ACRE), the Haitian American Museum of Chicago, the Hyde Park Art Center, the South Side Community Art Center, Spudnik Press and the Stony Island Arts Bank.
Much of the work in her installations are handmade pieces that explore the intersection of food, agriculture and visual culture – an interest that stems from childhood experiences in Haiti. “My grandfather was a farmer all his life. His house is where I saw chickens, horses, goats, lifebloods of farming and agriculture. They were part of my decor. Incorporating agriculture into my artistic practice definitely seems to come full circle,” says Antoine.
Her “I Followed the Drinking Gourd and it Led Me to Myself/Love/Healing/Community” screenprint collection, developed during a residency at Spudnik Press, shows a series of images and patterns found in the kitchen of the African diaspora to honor the cooking methods, visual details and culinary stories and traditions associated with popular ingredients such as hibiscus, okra or black-eyed peas. Each image contains intricate layers of symbols and photographs that reflect the natural landscape and agriculture around the world. The composition is meant to replicate how intimate details, such as scents and surfaces, take shape in memory. “A lot of foods in countries on the African continent and the Caribbean contain the same ingredients, but while traveling I noticed that they were prepared in different ways,” she says. “It showed me that while they may have specific memories for me, many ingredients and cultures have traveled through the diaspora. Learning about cultures and their history allows me to understand people’s cultures.
In 2019, her creative practice expanded through a residency with the Urban Growers’ Collective (UGC), a black-led nonprofit farm in Chicago working to build a fairer local food system. and fair.
Throughout the year, Antoine worked with the organization to provide art education classes for teenagers that included printmaking lessons in addition to gardening techniques. “I approached this residency considering the farm as my studio and studying how art can be used as a tool for engagement,” explains Antoine.
When the pandemic hit in 2020, Antoine brought this concept to life. Food company Barilla, in partnership with UGC, commissioned him to design the exterior of a bus as part of the relaunch of UGC’s Fresh Moves Mobile Market program, which provides BIPOC communities hardest hit by the pandemic more than 2,000 pounds of fresh produce, five days a week, year-round. Customers board the bus and fill their bags with local vegetables, produce and fruit. Antoine’s design aimed to bring joy, emotion and cultural connection to the communities served by the bus.
“The intent I had for the food collages was to showcase communities of color, especially black and neighborhood, in the context of abundance and healthy food,” Antoine explains. “The images go against the negative stereotypes of our communities who don’t have enough of them. All images included are either of UGC staff members, volunteers or the children of staff. This is because I wanted the project to reflect the mission of UGC and the people who work there and make their programs happen every day. They should shine. The project showed me that you never know how an idea can flourish, who it can affect and, above all, in what form it can evolve.
In March 2022, Antoine was named the inaugural Artist in Residence at the Legler Regional Library in West Garfield Park, where she will spend the next two years developing public art projects, as well as community art programs. “I took the time to connect with community groups, volunteer and attend events,” she says. “When it comes to connecting with people and building a network and community, you have to show up for the people. first, then ask for what you need. It’s a two-year residency, which gives me time to build relationships, so whoever comes behind me has some sort of foundation to stand on.
In the future, Antoine plans to continue to develop his practice by exploring art forms deeply rooted in the cultures of the African diaspora.
“When I learn a new technique, I ask myself, ‘What traditional skills appeal to me and how can I connect with people to learn them?’” she says. “This ongoing investigation helps fuel all the other arts programs I do. I will always keep a part of my practice dedicated to this: curiosity. (Sabrina Greig)