After a year of looking into the artists circulating around the city, VAM has comprised a list of influential artists, creators, designers, performers, and curators who are inspiring the hell out of us. The result? 20 individuals who are dedicated, determined, and dazzling us with their work every damn day, and doing it well.
Rashayla Marie Brown – Artist
When it comes to identity and representation in pop culture, Rashayla Marie Brown uses her work in visual art and photography to push and provoke. She doesn’t want her audiences to be mere consumers of pop culture, but to learn how they can engage with pop culture. Her work has been shown from Chicago, to Philadelphia, to Costa Rica. She’s also internet-famous; as of 2016, her essay “Open Letter to My Fellow Young Artists and Scholars on the Margins: A Tribute to Terry Adkins” was shared over 4K times online. Of her work, Brown says she “constantly shifts in authorial voice. This has been called code-switching. She’d rather call it fluency.”
Dorian Electra, Michael Zarowny, and Weston Allen – Production
Dorian Electra, Michael Zarowny, and Weston Allen are the production and performance art team whose vibrant, synthy aesthetic encompasses everything from the trippy to the surreal. Though their projects come in weird packaging, anyone familiar with their video, Clitopia, knows that their work often explores charged and deeply relevant issues. When they’re not low-key dismantling the patriarchy, they’re producing zeitgeisty work like the video for Tigre by Jarina De Marco, which is featured on the soundtrack for Broad City.
Lee V. Gaines – Writer
Lee V. Gaines’ writing has got reach. Not only can her byline be found in both the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Reader, but the topics she covers run the gamut from Chicago music, to medical marijuana, to politics and social justice. Gaines’ status as an independent journalist keeps her free to cover the stories about which she feels most strongly. Both that freedom and her voice is a welcome shift on the Chicago journalism front.
Imp Queen – Performer
If you ask Imp Queen (aka Darren Barrere) how she would describe herself, she’d tell you “queer non-binary trans femme, but I also think labels are clunky, ill-fitting and divisive.” A rising pop star, performer, and queer community leader, Imp Queen’s work follows the philosophy of non-conformity and self-invention. A regular host at Smart Bar’s Queen! (see below), Imp Queen is helping to lead the charge into a new era of trans visibility and celebration. (via Windy City Media Group)
An Authentic Skid Mark – Designer
The designs of SAIC grad Kaleigh Moynihan rule the Chicago queer nightlife scene. Operating under the moniker An Authentic Skid Mark (AASM), she creates audacious, over-the-top fashion that helps make underground talents like the aforementioned Imp Queen, Toyota Corona, and Daniella DeLuna be as iconic and memorable as they are. Provocative and outlandish, AASM’s designs go for broke, reflecting her philosophy that “creativity and self-expression are catalysts of freedom.” (via Bullett)
Party Noire – Event in Hyde Park @ The Promontory
#BlackJoy is what Nick Alder, Lauren Ash, and DJ Rae Chardonnay were after when they created Party Noire in 2015, an intentional space where black, creative millennials convene in a convivial and positive atmosphere. One of the best things about this hip, monthly gathering, aside from being voted 2016 Best Chicago Day Party by the Chicago Reader, is its intersectionality and commitment to creating a safe and positive space for every kind of black, including its queer, trans, and gender-nonconforming community.
Jamila Woods – Vocalist and Poet
Most of Jamila Woods fans were first introduced to her as the soulfully sweet voice backing Chance the Rapper on his hits “Sunday Candy“ and “Blessings.” But the vocalist and poet claimed a spotlight of her own with the release of this last summer’s full-length debut recording Heavn. Much of Woods’ music examines her experience of blackness, womanhood, and Chicago. Her fans call it protest music, but Woods takes it further saying, “I hope this album encourages listeners to love themselves and love each other. For black and brown people, caring for ourselves and each other is not a neutral act. It is a necessary and radical part of the struggle to create a more just society.” Woods’ music also appears in the forthcoming web series Brown Girls, and she is a member of the poetry collective Dark Noise — both projects she shares with poet Fatimah Asghar, featured on the list below. (via The Fader)
Edra Soto – Visual Artist + Gallery Owner
For East Garfield Park artist Edra Soto, art happens organically. Both her art and curatorial work have been recognized by NewCity, Art Forum, and The Chicago Tribune, but what makes Soto an even greater #VAMInfluencer is the artist-run gallery she built with husband Dan Sullivan in, wait for it… their backyard. The Franklin, a modular and highly flexible space, hosts around nine shows each year and artists can exhibit their work year round. While Soto’s work can be found both in Chicago and overseas, this visionary is dedicated to making a home for the work of others right in her own home.
Shani Crowe – Interdisciplinary Artist
Shani Crowe is having a major moment. On the heels of her Chicago exhibition of Braids, a series of photographs and video on the artistry of hair braiding, Crowe was asked to create the iconic headpieces that neo-soul singer Solange Knowles would rock in her November Saturday Night Live performance. But the work of the Southside artist and Howard University grad has been turning heads even before the celebrity bump, through the purity of her artistic vision. 3AP (3ARTS Projects) helped her get her “Braids” exhibition off the ground which is currently on tour throughout the country and aims to “bring black women face to face with the profound beauty they all posses inside and outside.” (via W Magazine)
Fatimah Asghar – Poet, Performer, and Educator
Lately, Fatimah Asghar’s work has been getting a lot of attention. The trailer for the new webseries Brown Girls, written by Asghar and directed by Sam Bailey, has prompted coverage by media outlets from Vibe Magazine to Now This. When she’s not creating hip, urban stories that highlight the experiences of women of color, Asghar is a nationally touring poet and member of the poetry collective Dark Noise, a multi-racial, multi-genre team committed to radical truth-telling through poetry. The first episode of Brown Girls drops February 15th, 2016 on Open TV.
Mykele Deville – Poet and Rapper
Mykele Deville’s calendar is filling up fast. Playing shows from Subterranean, to Double Door, to Lincoln Hall, this hip-hop poet’s sensibilities are both deeply personal and wide-reaching, both achingly anxious and sweetly joyous. He first caught his fan’s ears with his 2016 release Super Predator, and made further strides with his follow-up Each One Teach One. Now, on the heels of his freshly dropped music vid Revolt, Deville’s got still more irons in the fire, including the new poetry collective called Growing Concerns. Keep your ear to the ground.
Noël Morical – Visual Artist
Noel Morical makes things she thinks should exist. Working with utilitarian fibers like paracord, climbing rope, and plastic, her inventive and abstract expressions burst with color — one of the chief elements she uses to manipulate the experience of those who view her work. When undertaking large-scale, meticulous pieces, the SAIC grad often recruits assistance from fellow artists, and values the practice as a way to build community, always eager to return the favor. (via She/Folk)
Felicia Holman – Artist
“Artrepreneur” Felicia Holman is a creator, connector, and conduit. She is the co-founder of the woman-centered, Afro-diasporic collaborative Honey Pot Performance and the think tank of the programming collective Art Leaders of Color Network. She also serves as artist services manager for the performing arts incubator and venue, Links Hall. A native Chicagoan with a sensibility rooted in community-building and social justice, Holman strives to use her many platforms and wealth of artistic relationships to uplift, inspire, and build audiences for fringe and underground art. You can keep up with Felicia on Facebook.
Joe Varisco – Producer/QUEER, ILL + OKAY
Joe Varisco’s perennial positivity might be the secret weapon in his work to bring awareness and resources to HIV+, LGBTQIA, and Gender Non-Conforming artists, communities, and organizations. He’s the mastermind behind QUEER, ILL + OKAY, the annual multidisciplinary performance series that explores and challenges current notions surrounding queer individuals living with HIV and other mental or chronic illness. Through his production company JVR Majesty, Joe shines a bright and effervescent light on these uniquely marginalized communities, lifting up and normaling their experiences in the world.
Teklife – DJ/Production Crew
The underground DJ/production crew with members now spanning the globe has humble beginnings in Chicago’s early 00s when footwork — the Chicago-centric dance and music style, cousin to juke — was just taking hold. Spearheaded by DJs Rashad, Tre, Manny, Spinn, and Gant-Man, the collective emerged as Teklife in 2010 and now features a second generation of members, the youngest DJ Earl (24) and Taye (20). Though DJ Rashad passed away in 2014, what began as an obscure basement subculture nearly 20 years ago, now has not only a dedicated following, but billing at festivals like Pitchfork and Sonar. And even though this crew stays on the come up, their style always stays true to their underground roots.
Wesley Kimler – Visual Artist
The abstract, raw, and often ominous work of Wesley Kimler seems to spring from the experiences of his most formative years — from running away from home at the age of 14, to life on the streets as a child and a stint in county jail, to his travels through Afghanistan. Highly critical of the modern art world which he finds too academic, Kimler’s work engages viewers with a chaotic sensibility. For Kimler, art is about “not knowing how to live…and a whole lot of heartbreak.” His work seeks to harness that disillusionment and make it into something beautiful. (via Huffington Post)
Queen! – Smartbar
Every Sunday at Smart Bar, a house music dance party goes down for Kings, Queens, and Everything in Between. DJ’d by Smart Bar residents Derrick Carter, Michael Serafini, and Garrett David, the denizens of Chicago’s queer nightlife show up and show out in their fiercest get-ups, and turn up in a space where no matter who you are, you’re not only welcome, you’re a Queen. Regular hosts include legendary Chicago queer artist Jojo Baby, subversive drag icon Lucy Stoole, and Imp Queen (making her third appearance on this list), along with frequent guest hosts like drag artist and “alien streetwalker” Nico and queer activist Toyota Corona.
Barak adé Soleil – Dance, Theatre + Performance Artist
The performance, direction, and design work of Barak adé Soleil is the definition of intersectional art. Much of his work, including his 2016 dance suite What the Body Knows, explores notions of African diaspora, queer culture, and disability — elements of identity that make for deeply unique lived experience, on which Soleil’s work shines a light. His recognitions have been mounting in recent years, including being named a 2016 3Arts awardee and 2017 3Arts Residency Fellow.
Thrillist named hers one of the Top 50 Chicago Twitter Feeds That Matter. She has written essays for NPR, The Guardian, Pitchfork, and GQ, and has been featured on panels at the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Chicago Humanities Festival. Brittany Julious, whose main gigs are as a columnist for the Chicago Tribune and editor for VICE’s Thump, writes on a range of issues including feminism, music, race, and politics. Ever-ready to tackle the next story, Julious’ voice is an increasingly important one in the landscape of young Chicago journalists, and people are paying attention.
Tiger Lily – Costume Designer + Wardrobe Stylist
Covered by #VAMUnfiltered earlier in 2016, fashion queen Tiger Lily will tell you that her favorite works are her projects with Chicago’s drag queens. To her it is “a way of embracing women without being a woman.” Tiger Lily’s designs match her infectious personality; both are effervescent and burst with imagination. There is a certain purity in the love she has for her work, and the clarity of her artistic vision — to use her design to highlight the beauty of that which, to her, is already inherently beautiful.
BY MCKENZIE CHINN
McKenzie is a writer living in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. Her poetry has appeared in Rogue Agent Journal and Voicemail Poems. She has performed her poetry as part of Chicago’s long-running, curated show-case Salonathon and The Inconvenience’s The Fly Honey Show, and shared creative nonfiction essays with Chicago’s 2nd Story. A Leonore Annenberg Artist Fellow, she wrote, produced, and appears in the independent feature film Olympia, currently in post-production. McKenzie is also an actor and teaching artist, and enjoys singing hip-hop to her cat Wifi.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ALEXUS MCLANE