By Grace Kuikman
What could hip hop writes and quilting have in common? Each of these art forms can convey hidden messages. Hidden Messages: Decoding Secrets, a new exhibit opening Fri., Feb. 7, 6 p.m. at the Beverly Arts Center, 2407 W. 111th St., will reveal through paint, dance and fabric, how the secret languages of symbols, letters and movement connect these wildly different genres.
American history quilts by Beverly/Morgan Park artist Dorothy Straughter and dance and hip hop writes (commonly called graffiti) by Chicago artist Poppin Chuck Bledsoe tell stories using symbols. They first met about three years ago at the Stony Island Arts Bank, and soon after, both artists had their work in a show at the Dorchester Art & Housing Collaborative. “From that grew the realization that our art forms worked together and shared hidden messages,” Straughter said.
A member of the Beverly Arts Center’s Diversity Committee, Straughter proposed an interactive exhibit, showcasing one art form that people think of as a homey folk art and another that many people think of as an urban street culture. Both are strongly rooted in African American traditions.
According to Straughter, the symbols stitched into quilts that were used to guide runaway slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad can be linked to centuries–old Andikra symbols from West Africa that held and conveyed special meanings.
When first introduced to the hidden messages in Underground Railroad quilts, Straughter was inspired to research this history. Through the symbols sewn into quilts and painted like simple decorative elements on barn and buildings, valuable information was shared to keep people safe and help them on their journey to freedom.
A self-taught quilter, Straughter combines her passion for African American history with her remarkable skill to create quilts rich in symbols and stories. The large quilts depict images often steeped in negative stereotypes, yet beautiful because they are crafted in saturated colors and intricate patterns. Straughter’s Underground Railroad quilt will be on exhibit at the BAC, and Straughter will provide detailed information on the history connected to each piece. Her quilts have been exhibited throughout Chicago at galleries and art centers as well as museums.
Poppin Chuck has been in the hip hop world since the 1970s, and is a master of the hidden messages painted into the colorful, explosive tagging known as hip hop writes, as well as hip hop dance. According to Straughter, the people who built the hip hop culture were outliers who used dance and art to express themselves, create identities and communicate with other outliers.
There’s a difference between “writes” and “graffiti,” Straughter said. “The word ‘graffiti’ has a bad connotation,” she said. “[‘Writes’} is just a style of writing their name so friends knew they were there.” Bledsoe’s impressive work can be enjoyed and interpreted in the exhibit.
The unique movements in hip hop dance evolved from a variety of dance forms including the soft shoe, tap dance and even the Lindy Hop. As part of the exhibit, people will view videos of various dances, get a sense of the physical art hip hop, and try to follow some moves using footsteps on the floor as their “dance instructor.”
As part of the exhibit experience, the BAC will host two special events. “Decoding the Secrets,” a free artist talk by Dorothy Straughter and Poppin Chuck Bledsoe, will be held Fri., Feb. 21, 6 p.m., and will include a “quilt flip” (Straughter’s American history quilts have related images on both sides). BAC hip hop instructor Chris Nasadowski will lead a Hip Hop Workshop and Dance Battle Fri., Feb. 28, 6:30 p.m.; $10. “Hidden Messages” continues at the BAC through Mar. 8.