Arts » Visual Arts

Black Knight Archive: An alternate history of Chicago's south side


Ian Weaver, "Black Knight Seal"
  • Ian Weaver, "Black Knight Seal"

Ian Weaver's Black Knight Archive purports to tell the history of a Black Nationalist group that came into being in Chicago's Black Bottom neighborhood, a once vibrant and diverse part of the city that's been razed over (like much of the Indiana Ave. district here) to make way for highways and other symbols of urban progress. The neighborhood is real, but the Black Knights aren't ­— just as all supposedly historical artifacts in the show, opening Friday at iMOCA, were created by Weaver himself over the past decade. Weaver, a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, tells us more about the project.

NUVO: Can you talk about how and when this show started to come together? Was there a eureka moment?

Ian Weaver: The show has been an idea for some time now. In 2010 I had an exhibition with Aron Packer at Packer Schopf Gallery in Chicago. I showed a grouping of maps, sculptures, and a quilt/tapestry. The show was an overview of the Black Knights. Later, I found myself wanting to separate the individual components, like chapters in a novel. I felt that this way of working would allow me time and space to develop the themes I have been interested in exploring.

So, there wasn’t really a Eureka moment, mostly because things don’t happen for me in the studio that way! I’m more of a plodder, more deliberate and less impulse-driven. I do a lot of research, try to figure out how things can be done, and then use trial and error in doing them. It really is a laboratory practice, the way in which I work in my studio.


NUVO: Where did the residents of Black Bottom migrate from? What have they left behind, in terms of the artifacts that you're presenting in the show? And why did you opt to tell their story through artifacts?

Weaver: The “real” residents of the Black Bottom were black people primarily from the south who were part of the Great Migration of the early 20th Century (when blacks migrated from the South to the North to find a better way of life). The Black Bottom was the black section of the larger Near West Side, which was a multi-ethnic community; it was a place that migrants from all over the world settled when they came to Chicago, our “Ellis Island.” Initially my project was to document my mother and her sibling’s history, and since they grew up in that area it is the place on which I focused my work.

The entire community was destroyed because of urban renewal, the construction of an expressway (I-90/94), and finally, the University of Illinois in Chicago campus. A lot of the family and community history had been destroyed, so my project has not been to locate and archive what I could find, but to create an entirely new imagined history (complete with fictional “Black Knights”). The point has been to highlight that we are constantly creating our own identities all the time, individually and communally, and that we do this through commemorative ceremonies (like funerals, birthdays, etc.) but especially through the objects we create and save, including monuments.


NUVO: Is there a sense of who's doing the work of archiving and collecting these materials? Are the Black Knights recording their own history? Or is an outside institution telling their story?

Weaver: That’s a good question. When I created the faux history museum (back in 2008, and again in South Bend at the South Bend Museum of Art in 2011), people wondered who was behind the curtain. Especially in 2008, I made sure people understood there was an institution (which I created) that was doing the archiving, that my role was not as an artist creating this work but as an archivist. Now, I am less concerned with those distinctions; they seem overly art-y to me. I also want to get away from the notion that this work is institutional critique, which needs to have the role of the critic defined obviously. I like the idea of these objects and artifacts just being, like the hull washing up and people on the shore of Lake Michigan discovering it. I’m interested in the provenance of these works being somewhat untraceable, as though they mysteriously appeared. I want the focus to be squarely on the objects, on the experience the viewer has in front of them, and on the (fractured) story they tell, less on me and my role. I’d like to be invisible if possible.


NUVO: In what ways do the Black Knights resemble or differ from the Black Panthers? And does their story play out in a world that's the same as ours save for the existence of the Black Knights — or are there other ways in which American history is different in a world that includes the Black Knights?

Weaver: The use of the Black Nationalist imagery came from my desire to have a strong, vocal black presence that would speak for this disenfranchised community. I was born in the 1970s, and so a lot of the imagery of the Black Power movement is something I experience in an iconic way, as symbols, without the attendant first-person experience. So, I use them that way in the work: more iconically, less historically. I was also interested in a mash-up of these different histories, in a general sense: the heraldic history of Europe, and the militant history of the Black Panthers.


NUVO: Do you have a structure in mind for a several-part project? Is it that you have a structure in mind for a several-part project, or is the chapter title part more of a way of suggesting that there's a vast archive of Black Knight artifacts that could be presented in a museum setting? 

Weaver: The use of the chapter titling is both a way of suggesting the archive is vast, but also of signaling that the story will unfold in a way similar to a novel, albeit a very fractured, non-linear novel. Even though I have a rough idea of how I envision other chapters unfolding, nothing is decided at this point. I’m interested in certain themes, like creation myths and water, migration, beginnings and rebirths and destructions. I knew I wanted the first installment to unfold like a creation story, and so many involve water and/or leaving one land for a new one (Eden, Noah’s Arc, the Israelite’s exodus, but also modern examples of immigrants leaving the “old country” for the “new world”). But also, a major influence was the notion of beginnings being elemental, raw, and natural. I wanted the work in the show to largely be gray, with wood, sand, land, and water referenced throughout.


NUVO: How'd you come to work with iMOCA on this show?

Weaver: I had a studio visit with Sarah Green, former curator at the IMA back in the spring. She and I had been trying to schedule something for awhile, and the opportunity for a visit arose as she was guest curating the M.F.A. exhibition at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where I was teaching. After the visit, maybe a month later, I received an email from Shauta Marsh at iMOCA saying that she wanted to offer me an exhibition in August, based on the referral from Sarah with whom she has worked in the past.


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