This past Tuesday, the EAM’s chief curator Staci Boris and I took a drive to the South Shore neighborhood of Chicago to meet with local artist Faheem Majeed in his studio. The studio itself is housed across the street from the beautiful and historic St. Philip Neri Roman Catholic Church, in a space which used to serve as a dormitory for the church’s nuns. Upon entering the studio, my eyes immediately darted about the room, from newly incised particle boards which lay propped against the wall, to a ream of black-and-white wallpaper featuring a repeated depiction of Black Venus, to the countless slabs of wooden materials which lined the space. Majeed was warm and welcoming from the moment of our arrival, both eager to hear about our mission and plans for the upcoming EAM Biennial and to share his background, art and experiences working on the South Side and throughout Chicago.
Majeed describes himself as a builder, and that title fits him exceptionally well. Beginning his artistic career in metalworking and moving toward the largely installation and woodworking-based practice he has today, Majeed is, in a very literal sense, a builder. On another level, Majeed is a societal builder, evidenced in part by his serving as Executive Director and Curator of the seminal South Side Community Art Center from 2005 to 2011. However, his position at SSCAC is but one of countless examples of Majeed’s tireless efforts to engage the people of Chicago as an arts administrator and a visual artist.
In our discussion, I was struck by the palpable passion Majeed has for fostering and participating in difficult (but necessary) dialogues with compassion. Much of his work deals with issues of identity, race, community, the occupation of space and the negotiation of history and present reality. Exploring these topics in his professional career has of course garnered the artist some criticism from numerous sources -- colleagues, neighbors, and institutions alike. But his is not a fragile artistic ego; Majeed routinely internalizes and utilizes such friction towards the end of creation.
A piece of his currently on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s Chicago Works exhibition poignantly illustrates this point. Carved into particle board (one of Majeed’s preferred materials which is conventionally used for boarding up buildings) is the phrase “FUCK YO SHACK.” Majeed explained that this references an experience he had working on a neighborhood installation called “Shacks & Shanties,” erected in the area around his home in 2013. For this project, Majeed built shack-like structures for the collaborative use of local, civically-minded artists. While in the building process, he had neighbors approach him with dismay and anger – why are you building this shack, why in our neighborhood, would you do this in a wealthy, predominantly white area? To this Majeed responded that this is his art, this is who he is, and yes, he would put a shack in the Loop or on the Gold Coast in a heartbeat. While these interactions had the potential to be negative or destructive, Majeed refused to let them consume him and instead used them as materials with which to build.
Another instance of Majeed’s focus on building and more specifically rebuilding can be seen in his recycling of a specific group of wood over the course of a number of projects. The wood is meant to mimic the appearance of the walls of the SSCAC, which is itself a well-worn knotty pine. The SSCAC is the anti-“white cube”; it cannot be simply painted over at the end of each exhibition, but rather bears witness to all that came before it in the many nail holes and marks it wears. Similarly, Majeed builds with a set of wood pieces, creating new structures each time that carry the marks of his previous creations. Part of this wood is currently serving as a meeting house installation (also in the MCA’s Chicago Works space) and part of it is living in the former dormitory of a Catholic nun, amongst many of Majeed’s other works in progress. He refers to this project as a “perennial garden,” a telling turn of phrase which could be applied to much of the artist’s core philosophies. The cyclical nature of death begetting life, of new coming from old, of permanence and flux – all of these ideas pervade Majeed’s practices in art and beyond.
As Staci and I were leaving Majeed’s studio, I felt our discussion could have continued on for hours more. Majeed assured us that he would be visiting Elmhurst soon to explore the museum and speak further about his contribution to the Biennial. Until then, I will continue to treasure the insight and inspiration I gained from spending a morning with this radical and innovative creator.