In the summer of 2020, the people of Chicago rose up in support of Black life, with thousands taking part in dozens of actions across the city. That season of uprisings had curator and cultural producer Ciera Alyse McKissick thinking about Black people moving through space: about how Black migration and travel has been a portal into the future, and about how cultural artifacts record history. She wondered what legacy Black people wanted to leave behind, what stories they wanted to tell. Her thinking evolved into the curation of the compelling, concise group exhibition, “Relic,” on view until May 27 at the Arts Incubator gallery, part of the University of Chicago’s Arts and Public Life initiative.
Inspired in part by Alisha Wormsley’s traveling billboard project, There Are Black People in the Future, “Relic” includes tender depictions of Black cultural artifacts and asks how those objects might inform the years to come. The exhibition marks a new era in McKissick’s practice, an era that allows for slower movement, deeper research, and a politics of care. “Relic” is the main curatorial project for McKissick this year—a marked difference from her usual pace. In 2021 she curated six exhibitions and additional work for the Terrain Biennial, took part in two art fairs, curated film screenings, organized virtual artists talks and an album release, held a two-day food and arts festival, and a pop-up event. This was all undertaken as part of her independent curatorial work as well as her work for AMFM, an arts magazine-turned-brand that McKissick founded in 2009. All this on top of her day job as public programs manager for the Hyde Park Art Center, a position that she has held part-time alongside other jobs for pay until this January, when HPAC made her a full-time employee.
“The pandemic really opened up my eyes to the way that I was working before. I was very busy, it felt like I was flipping shows a lot, putting one up and taking one down. I didn’t have enough time to process what I was really doing, and be able to sit with and let the things meander in my body,” she says. “I hope to make that a deeper part of how I continue to work. It’s important to be able to really hone in on a theme or subject matter. How can I engage the public and make this information digestible for everyone to be able to take in? I think arts oftentimes can be really inaccessible or people don’t feel comfortable in those spaces. And I don’t ever want people to feel that way.”
Ciera McKissick Credit: Victor Hilitski for the Chicago Reader
McKissick, 34, was raised in Milwaukee. As long as she can remember, she has been interested in writing and in the arts. Her parents enrolled her in an arts elementary school. She took dance and art classes, played multiple instruments, and did stage crew in theater productions.
As a kid, she made magazines out of notebooks: writing quizzes and even assigning articles to her friends. Her father took her to gallery nights. In middle school, she hated the drab vibe of her school library, so she convinced the principal to let her redesign it, putting together a team of classmates to pick paint colors and decide what books to feature.
She grew up watching films on IFC and the Sundance channel with the help of her family’s black box cable; in high school she wrote a screenplay, carrying around a camcorder and making friends audition. She initially wanted to study film in college—she attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison—but settled on journalism, which felt more practical. At Wisconsin, she wrote for the school newspaper and music magazine, where she covered local acts but also big names like Beyoncé and Kanye West. “I got really disillusioned with writing about these people who were already famous,” she says. “I knew so many artists in my community, who were making amazing stuff, and I was just like, you should be the one who’s getting these stories. I have so much faith in people and think that they could be famous someday or be really successful. I wanted to be a part of telling those kinds of stories.”
In her senior year, she created a web magazine as part of an independent study. AMFM, which stands for Arts Music Fashion Magazine, had a section devoted to each category, for which McKissick wrote the articles and designed a pink cassette tape to enhance the branding. She got an A on the magazine, though she didn’t initially envision it as a long-term project.
But AMFM stayed on her mind. When she moved to Sacramento after graduating, she put together an issue focused on the arts scene of the city. After more than two years there, she moved home to be closer to family, and got a job working on a large-scale campaign trying to change discourse around the LGBTQIA community. “That’s honestly where I learned a lot about how to do those large-scale events, and how to organize something from the ground up,” she says.
She put out another, Milwaukee-focused issue of AMFM, and organized a few cultural events around town, but she was thinking bigger. McKissick’s mother, Cameo Anderson, says her daughter has never been the type to sit still. “She always had grandiose plans,” Anderson says. “She always wanted big things and Milwaukee was not the place.”
In 2013 she moved to Chicago. “I was only supposed to stay for a year,” McKissick says. “But I fell in love with the arts and the community of the city. Here I am nine years later.”
She became enmeshed in the arts scene, going to open mikes and meeting people. “AMFM kind of resurrected,” she says. When she first put together art shows, she realized she wanted something more engaging to happen in the space than just wine and cheese. She started a jazz series, working with Cultura in Pilsen until the space was shut down, and held other pop-up events. While in residency at Chicago Art Department, she had carte blanche over their two galleries for programming.
“I was like, everyone should be able to have the opportunity to do this,” she says. “I wanted to be able to lay the groundwork for people to incubate, come up with ideas, and flip the space as they saw fit, as I was able to do at Chicago Art Department.”
McKissick launched a GoFundMe to come up with enough start-up money to rent a space of her own, and opened AMFM gallery in Pilsen in 2016. “It was really born out of me going to all of these different types of spaces that I would pop up at and then there was so much overhead,” she says. “I wasn’t able to have as much autonomy over things, and I wanted to have more power over my vision.”
At first it was a live/work space, with McKissick living behind the storefront gallery. “That was a wild ride, my cat was at the gallery for a while,” she says. After moving out, she turned the room into a music production studio. There was also a gallery, studio space for artists, and a small shop, all in about 1,000 square feet. “It was a labor of love,” McKissick says, adding that friends helped paint murals inside and build out the space.
Over the roughly two years it was open, AMFM gallery hosted ten resident artists and held over 200 events. Erin LeAnn Mitchell was one of the resident artists. She was initially connected with McKissick through a mutual friend who correctly guessed they’d get along. “I think we have similar ambitions and drive,” Mitchell says.
Having a studio at AMFM was a game changer for Mitchell at that point in her career. She was in an arts education graduate program, but really wanted a place to make work. At AMFM, Mitchell created a body of work called Black Sauce, which she showed in the gallery. “That show, having that space, I feel like it really catapulted me into the place where I’m at right now, where I’m working mainly as an artist.”
But in 2018, McKissick made the difficult call to close the space. “We were actually doing well, which I think was also a part of the problem,” she says. Because the gallery was in a residential neighborhood, on 21st Street, some neighbors had been complaining to the landlord about AMFM’s events, which were typically held Thursday through Sunday. McKissick also experienced anti-Blackness in the neighborhood. One person threw a brick through the gallery’s window. Others would throw gang signs at patrons outside the space. The police were called when someone alleged that a prostitution ring was operating out of the space.
Though McKissick said she tried to be welcoming to the neighborhood, inviting folks to events and encouraging guests to patronize local businesses, it ultimately became too much. “It got to the point where I felt like I was walking on eggshells,” she says. Her closing announcement garnered dozens of supportive comments on Facebook.
“I was really vague about it when we closed,” she says. “Honestly I was really hurt by it. I had quit my marketing job to put my all into the space. I felt like it was just ripped from us.”
McKissick stresses that she doesn’t want to paint Pilsen in a negative light. “It was unfortunate, but in retrospect, after thinking through what it means to activate a neighborhood and go within a space, I would definitely do a lot more research, listening to see what the community would want out of a space in their neighborhood,” she says. “As I think about a future space, I’m actively thinking through where I’m celebrated, rather than just kind of tolerated.”
McKissick stands outside the south side gallery Credit: Victor Hilitski for the Chicago Reader
One of the seeds that led to “Relic” was a three-in-one bronze comb created by Haitian American artist Abigail Lucien. An object of cultural significance for Black folks, elevated by its material; it was useful but also beautiful, and it was something that a Black audience would understand innately. Three works by Lucien are in the show: two wall-hung sculptural pieces and a gorgeous video, A Softening, which shows the artist embracing a large chunk of shea butter.
Another inspirational seed was LaKela Brown’s sculptural reliefs, which feature plaster imprints of door-knocker earrings and chain necklaces. They recall ancient artifacts imprinted in clay, or fossilized remains. Two of Brown’s plaster earring reliefs are included in the exhibition, with layered compositions and heart-shaped or geometric imprints, some painted gold.
Upon entering the gallery, the viewer is confronted by a standalone wall, papered with gold, screen-printed ledgers from the Freedmen’s Bureau, documenting the lives of some of the nation’s first Black entrepreneurs. The entries contain the person’s biographical information, as well as their last wishes. In an essay for the exhibition, McKissick writes that the centerpiece references the fact that “Black people’s labor created the economy of the country,” with the illegibility of the handwritten pages “representing the barriers of entry Black entrepreneurs faced—and still do.”
“It’s honestly a show for Black people,” McKissick says. “In the sense that, just like that comb, if you don’t know then you don’t understand. It’s been a beautiful testament to Black culture in time and space. Thinking about the future of it all like, what is going to be left behind of us here? The things we see in the media are so sensationalized. It’s trauma porn and I don’t like to engage with things in that way. I’m trying to think beyond that. We don’t talk about the history that happened before slavery. I’m thinking about: what kind of stories do we wish to tell or what do we wish to leave behind? I posed that question to all six of the artists and they met with me those objects in the show.”
After almost a decade of producing events in Chicago, McKissick has thought a lot about what she wants AMFM, and her own practice, to look like. She recently registered AMFM as an LLC and wrote a three-year strategic plan for the business.
Some of that looks like slowing down, having more of a research-based curatorial practice. “Relic” was a two-year process, which allowed McKissick time to think deeply about the work. Along with the essay, McKissick built a website that features related work, including music and video, to expand the exhibition’s reach beyond those who can physically visit the gallery. She’s also put together robust programming, including virtual artist talks and a manifestation session with artist Rhonda Wheatley. A closing session on May 27 will feature a dance performance and a DJ set by Sadie Woods.
“Relic” has also served as a lesson in what it feels like to work with more resources. Arts and Public Life provided both curatorial and artist stipends, though more often curators and cultural producers are on their own when it comes to funding. “I find that, especially as a curator, there haven’t been many opportunities in the past to receive grants,” McKissick says. “I know that some of that is shifting now, especially after the pandemic, because people think about arts workers and creatives in a different capacity.”
She still gets comments from people who miss AMFM’s gallery. “It really felt like home,” Mitchell says. McKissick hopes to open up her own space again in the future. She envisions an institutional space, with room for performance, studios, and opportunities for mentorship and artist services. “I’m thinking a lot about the south side and the lack of studio space,” she says.
With fewer DIY or artist-run cultural spaces, people go to institutions instead, many of which have increased their opportunities for BIPOC artists following 2020’s calls for racial equity. “People are really catching on that POC and artists are the gatekeepers of culture,” she says. When BIPOC artists work with white-led institutions, it benefits the institution. “I would love for them to be able to uplift something that directly impacts the artists more. That’s my hope, to create that institution specifically for them.”
With McKissick’s drive, there’s little doubt she’ll realize these goals in due time. Her mother says that she’s always been fearless: “She just has this like, ‘I’m not gonna wait for somebody to tell me to do it.’ And that’s with everything.”
It’s important to McKissick to maintain relationships with all the artists she’s worked with, connecting folks with opportunities when she can. “We’ve gotten to this point in our relationship where I fully am trustful of Ciera,” Mitchell says. “Ciera is someone who will have my best interests at heart. It’s really good to have someone on your side like that. That looks out for you when you’re not around and speaks your name in rooms that you’re not in.”
The description of AMFM on its website really sums up McKissick’s whole approach: “AMFM is a brand for artists and the people.” She wants her work to uplift artists and the community in an approachable, accessible way. “I don’t want to perform,” she says. “My work is authentic. I try to always meet people where they’re at and have conversations on their own level. I think that’s a testament to why I’ve been able to do the work that I’ve been able to do here in Chicago for so long, and why I was welcomed in so openly. There’s a certain level of trust that you have to build with people and with artists. I think that that’s something that’s really, really important, especially when you’re dealing with something as sensitive as telling people’s stories and their truths.”
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