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Sargon II Courtyard, Khorsabad, Iraq

RAYA, TANNER AND SARGON
3 Southside Chicago Museums: Mexican - DuSable - Oriental

getaway-chicago logo"Where is the National Museum of Mexican Art?" and “Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb?” may not appear synonymous, but they share some expectations. Back when the Getaway Guys were kids listening to goofy radio quiz shows, a perennial favorite of quiz masters was the no-brainer “Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb?” Despite the dumbness of the question, somebody always answered incorrectly, which was hilarious for reasons no longer understood. The obvious answer is Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th President of the United States, nmmacancionis buried in Grant’s Tomb in New York City’s Morningside Heights. But the whereabouts of the National Museum of Mexican Art might stump a radio quiz show contestant (if there were such a thing anymore). The NMMA isn’t on the Mall in D.C., it’s in Chicago at 1852 W. 19th Street in Pilsen, occupies a former City of Chicago field house and was founded in 1982. The NMMA (formerly The Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum) is the only U.S. museum (American Association of Museums accredited) solely devoted to the art of Mexico and Mexican artists living in the United States.

The Getaway Guys had visited the NMMA (www.nationalmuseumofmexicanart.org) on several occasions over the last couple of years and saw a number of shows including the annual Day of The Dead exhibition which typically opens in early September and closes in mid-December. With commissioned works specifically designed for this spectacular exhibition of great diversity and intense interest, the Day of The Dead show is an absolute “must see” in Chicago. The 2008 show was terrific and the Getaway Guys are willing to bet the 2009 will be fabulous too.At present the Museum nmmadodoccupies 48,000 square feet of space and stages very scholarly shows based on borrowed works from prominent U.S. and Mexican collections. Starting with An Homage to Orozco in 1984 to Modern Maya: A Culture in Transition in 1991 to La Patria Portatil: 100 Years of Mexican Chromo Art Calendars in 1999 and then En Tus Manos, an exhibition of silkscreen monoprints investigating the reality of Latinos and AIDS in 2007, nmmamaskthe NMMA explores a wide spectrum of art and life related to the Latino community in Chicago and Latino culture elsewhere. In addition to temporary exhibitions, the NMMA has an exciting permanent collection of approximately 6,000 objects which are mostly works of recent vintage, but also earlier works such as The Virgin of Guadalupe, Miguel Cabrera (1695-1768), oil on canvas, c.1740-1768, La Purisima, anon., polychromed wood w/fabric & gold gilding, c. late 18th century, and The King and His Conscience, anon., oil on canvas, c. 19th century. Of more recent vintage, there’s a compelling 1995 acrylic on canvas by Marcos Raya called Sons of a Bad Life and the provocative Mother Earth, by Salvador Vega, acrylic on canvas, 1973.Despite a recent expansion-face lift, architecturally the National Museum of Mexican Art doesn’t exactly roll, but inside it rocks. The NMMA is a Chicago semi-secret and a definite must see. It’s a Getaway Guys’ favorite.dusridingtogether

Southeast of the NMMA, on the east side of Washington Park, adventurers can discover another Chicago semi-secret, the DuSable Museum of African-American History at 740 East 56th Place. Named for Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable (1745-1818), the first non-native settler in Chicago, and established in 1971, the DuSable (www.dusablemuseum.org) occupies a former park district building that once served as a jail also. The brain child of Margaret and Charles Borroughs, this remarkable assemblage of permanent artifacts and loan material is riveting. Along with a stunning collection of art executed by African-Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries, the DuSable has a wide variety of material related to the African-American experience in Chicago and elsewhere in the U.S. Looking at the permanent art collection, Neil and Alan chose their favorite works to argue about. Neil thought William A. Harper’s Country Side Landscape, c. 1890-1910, oil on canvas, was better than Alan’s pick, Archibald Motley’s 1945 oil on canvas called Christmas Eve. dussculptureThey both thought Henry Ossawa Tanner’s 1894 Pont Aven Landscape, oil on canvas, was great, however. Of interest to both Guys was a collection of African sculptures near the front entrance. With pieces from the Congo, Gabon, Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, Zimbabwe and other African nations, these assembled works act as an introduction to the world of African-American culture. The DuSable also hosts traveling exhibitions. From November 17, 2008 until May 17, 2009 it is featuring Distant Echoes: Black Farmers in America, a photo-documentary exhibition of the work of John Francis Ficara, who, between 1999 and 2002, traveled the back roads of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, the Carolinas, Maryland and Michigan photographing and interviewing black farmers. In beautifully rendered black and white images reminiscent of Depression era Farm Bureau Administration images and a moving video, Ficara claims the first decade of the 21st century to be the last in which African-American farmers will work the land. If true, it’s a startling fact.

Moving further east to 1155 E. 58th Street, there’s another intriguing place perhaps overlooked by Chicagoans and visitors to the Windy City. Unlike the National Museum of Mexican Art and the DuSable Museum of African-American History, with examples of cultural achievement both old oilittlemanand new, the Oriental has only objects that are really old. The brain child of archaeologist James Henry Breasted (1865-1935) and established in 1919, the Oriental Institute (www.oi.uchicago.edu) oiwingedlionat the University of Chicago is a mind blower. (The Getaway Guys thought the University of Chicago should award an honorary PhD. in Near Eastern Studies to anyone capable of digesting all the highly informative labels.) Even with his decent grasp of history and art history, Neil had a hard time remembering the chronology of all the ancient cultures represented in its collections. Stunning in their depth and presentation, the artifacts preserved at the O.I. are another Chicago must and in light of current events in the “Cradle of Civilization” an eye opener. (The stuff may be old, but the story is very now.)

In the Edgar and Deborah Jannotta Mesopotamian Gallery there are magnificent examples of pottery, metal work and carved temple figures (some with hilarious facial expressions) dating from 2900-2330 B.C., but a reproduction stela inscribed with the Code of Hammurabi (King of Babylon, 1792-1750 B.C.) was a point of interest for both Guys. Not that either could read the darn thing, but both remembered (with a bit of chagrin) its pivotal role in the evolution of codified laws. Further along, the Guys were confronted with a gigantic limestone winged bull with the head of Sargon II. Called a oifigureslamassu, this impressive sculpture once flanked the entrance to Assyrian King Sargon’s throne room in Khorsabad, northern Iraq. Excavated between 1929 and 1935 by a team of archaeologists from the University of Chicago, the lamassu and the flanking low relief sculptures depicting dignitaries and supplicants at Sargon’s court are remarkable in their huge size and rich detail. Meanwhile over in the Egyptian Gallery an abundance of material from early 20th century excavations resides next to a small, but interesting display of fakes. Because bonuses were given to the local laborers if significant finds were unearthed, some workers (not too dumb) succeeded in passing off credible fakes as the real McCoy. Along with a colossal limestone sculpture of King Tut (c. 1330 B.C.), a very nice quartzite portrait sculpture of King Neferhotep (c.1750 B.C.) and some obligatory mummies (kids love them), the Getaway Guys were pretty much in synch about the Egyptian artifacts. But, lacking a dishonest bone in his body, Alan didn’t get the humor in the fakes.

In the Robert & Deborah Aliber Persian Gallery, the Getaway Duo was confronted with a colossal, reconstructed (we’re talking big here) limestone head of a stylized bull dating from the reign of Xerxes (486-424 B.C.) and brought to Chicago in the early 20th century from Persepolis, the ancient capitol of Persia. Also, there were two fascinating capitals, one representing a man-bull and the other two bulls (both in limestone) from the same archaeological site. oiegyptBut, in this gallery the show stopper for Neil and Alan was a fragmented carving of a stylized lion head dating from 550-330 B.C. Persepolis. Even in its half ruined state, this not inconsequential piece of a larger work of art exemplifies remarkable composition and incredible craftsmanship.

There’s a slew of African-American History Museums in the U.S., but only one accredited institution devoted to Mexican Art (psssst! it’s in Chicago) and only one in depth collection of Mesopotamian artifacts outside Iraq (in Chicago too!). The Brooklyn Museum has a great collection of Egyptian material, the Met and the Getty have fab Roman and Greek things (along with the Walters in Baltimore) and the Penn Museum has a unique collection from the ancient city of Ur, but Chicago’s Oriental Institute is totally alone in its class. Focused on their individual spheres of interest, each of the three south side institutions has an excellent museum shop. Although Neil has a soft spot for the Mexican’s array of silver jewelry and Alan went for the Oriental with its unique mix rugs and jewelry from the East, both thought the DuSable outstanding, especially its wide and in depth selection of books about African-American culture and experience. February 2009

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All photos courtesy of the DuSable Musuem of African American History, the National Museum of Mexican Art, and the Oriental Institute.

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