Yaoundé Olu was interviewed in her office by Rebecca Zorach in August of 2013
Dr. Yaoundé Olu is a native Chicagoan, award-winning editorial cartoonist, illustrator, educator, and indie comic and graphic novel publisher who has used numerous media during her more than 40 year of creating visual and auditory art. Her paintings and drawings have been exhibited widely and she has won numerous awards. Since 1980, she has been editorial cartoonist for the Chicago and Gary Crusader newspapers. She was a visual arts delegate to FESTAC, the Festival of Black and African Arts in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1977. From the late 1960s until the early 1980s, she ran the alternative gallery, Osun, which she founded in 1968 in the South Shore neighborhood of Chicago. Her art is designed to portray an alternate worldview that is distinct from everyday life, but provides an objective mirror through which our lives can be seen.
Rebecca Zorach (RZ): Let’s start by looking at one of your works in the South Side Community Art Center’s collection. I‘m curious about this style. Would you consider this Afrofuturist?
Yaoundé Olu (YO): I just participated in a show at the Harriet Tubman Museum in Macon, Georgia. It was called “Riffin the Real, Afro-futurism,” and since there‘s a title now I jump on the bandwagon, but actually my work is not Afrofuturist, because my work is about the past and about contemporary issues somewhere, somehow right now—maybe in an alternate universe. Most of my work is not about the future; it‘s about the past and about alternate dimensions. But, Afrofuturism is a really nice, catchy word and it‘s commercial and it‘s catching on so I‘m jumping on the bandwagon.
RZ: Your work does have a Sci-Fi kind of feeling.
YO: I could take that, yes.
RZ: And science fiction in general is often used to comment on the present or the past, it might be set in the future but it‘s really allegorically about the present.
YO: Right. Octavia Butler was a very good example of that.
RZ: Looking at some of your other work from this period, how would describe your aesthetic sensibility at that time?
YO: Design art. I still like to do that. Generally in indigenous African cultures you have face painting and a lot of body art. So the work that I’m doing is building on that tradition, only from my own standpoint and imagination. I doubt if you’ll ever see anyone who actually looks like that, with that design, but a lot of my works are like that. I still tend to do some of that.
RZ: In addition to your work as an artist, you founded an alternative art space, Osun, in South Shore in 1968. How do you pronounce the name?
YO: “O-shoon.“ Some people spell it O-S-H-U-N to make it clear, but actually it‘s O-S-U-N with a little dot under the S.
RZ: Is that Yoruba?
RZ: You were a young artist at that point.
RZ: Were you a student or were you already out and working as an artist?
YO: Well, actually I was a schoolteacher. I started teaching in 1966. I was always an artist, My dad was an artist—not a famous artist, he was a mailman, but he was an artist. He did really, really nice stuff. I remember being eleven or twelve, and I was serious about art even in those days. My parents had a set of encyclopedias that showcased art from many historical periods and I remember just being enthralled, just sitting there rapt. So at one point, I had developed an actual portfolio. There were also ads in magazines, it was the Professional Artist School or something, where they asked you to submit a drawing and they would assess your work and determine whether or not you have art potential. So I did a drawing and submitted it and they said, “well, this is very nice but you have to contact us again when you‘re 18 years old.“ But they did say that I had potential. And I was twelve, so I really did have a portfolio. And I was also, during that time, very much into cartooning. I went to what‘s now Chicago State University, but at that time it was Chicago Teachers College, as an undergraduate. And I was a cartoonist on the school newspaper, Tempo. I also did cartoons, and created a cartoon portfolio. So I have several strands as an artist: I‘m a professional cartoonist, and even today I’m the editorial cartoonist for the Crusader Newspaper Group, and I‘ve been doing that since 1980. But then I also have this so-called “fine arts“ track that I‘ve been on for a long time. When I was teaching, in 1966, ‘67, I had a friend, in fact a couple of friends, who thought that I had talent and encouraged me and one of my other friends to think seriously about our art. We both started just doing art, and Wadsworth Jarrell was the one who just reminded me when I saw him at the AfriCOBRA exhibit—he reminded me that he was at my first art show at a restaurant in Hyde Park. I think it‘s right on the corner of 53rd and Harper, or maybe it was down the street, but anyway it was in the general area so, that was my first full-blown art show, with a friend who taught with me at the school.
RZ: And who was that?
YO: Her name is Victoria Hawkins, but I’m not sure whether or not she continued to pursue her art per se. Before that I had done some work, I had work exhibited on 63rd and Halsted in a jewelry store. I think that I really kick-started my so-called fine arts career in ‘66, ‘67. And I looked around and there weren‘t many places for African-American artists to exhibit at that time, and there weren‘t a lot of African American collectors, so in my youthful exuberance, I thought it would be a good idea to open a gallery and to showcase the works of African American artists. My work was not the only work on display; I had actual shows and I operated Osun from 1968 to 1982. May 18, 1968 to be exact. Most of that time, in fact the entire time, I bankrolled it. I was an educator for many years; I‘m an educator now, so that‘s what I did. I exhibited my works, but most of the time I had shows and exhibited other people‘s works at Osun.
RZ: What other artists did you show?
YO: I was just trying to remember, it‘s just incredible how you can forget, but one of the most notable groups was Turtel Onli and his group BAG, Black Artists Group. Who was in that group? Jim Smoote, Espi Eph, Turtel Onli, and Kenneth Hunter immediately come to mind. Also, Tom Range, Tazama Sun, Sheila “Ngozi,” Dale Spann, Donnie Carter, Omar Lama, Kush Bey, Ben Bey, Carol James, Max Fran Smith, Pat McCombs, Edfu and Ray Gipson also exhibited work. Johnny Matthews, who had a gallery right down the street, also exhibited work at Osun. At one point we had five galleries or cultural arts institutions on the strip. What I was trying to do was, to develop a colony of artists. I lived in Hyde Park on 53rd and Cornell, and then moved to South Shore, and the idea was to have a colony of artists in South Shore. So at one point Maurice Hodo, we had-we actually ended up having about five galleries or cultural arts institutions up and down 75th Street between Yates and Colfax. Osun‘s address was 2541 E. 75th Street. In the early days—the community was in a great state of change with great potential, but then in later years the drug dealers came in and just destroyed the Anchor Building on the corner of 75th and Kingston and then everything changed.
RZ: What were the other galleries?
YO: Maurice Hodo had a gallery, Johnny Matthews had a gallery. Obilo had a recording arts studio. There was another store—Sika Dwimfo and Olumiwa owned a store that that focused on their unique jewelry. It had sand on the floor, they turned it into Africa on the inside, and they did jewelry making and that kind of art. It was really nice. Osun was the fifth space. So we had a cultural arts thing happening I also had a series of concerts; some of the very first AACM members did concerts there; Henry Threadgill, Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, just about everybody, Lester Lashley, we had just a whole lot of things happening there. You‘re also familiar with AFAM gallery, right?
RZ: Yes, I talked to Jose Williams a little bit about it.
YO: His gallery was on 75th Street but it was much further west.
And I exhibited in this gallery as well. And at Osun we had people like Kelan Phil Cohran lecturing, Earl Calloway, the cultural arts person from The Chicago Defender did a talk, and we had what I call the second stream of AACM, they did shows there and I know I‘m forgetting a whole lot of people. I‘ve exhibited a lot of people; I mean there were just too many to name off the top of my head. A lot of people exhibited at Osun. There were people who actually came from other cities and they would come and they‘d hear about Osun and come by there and it was basically at one point like a salon because not only did people come to hear the music or come to see the art but they also came to sit and talk.
RZ: And what did they talk about?
YO: Everything; it was philosophical, you know, we talked about art, the nature of art, art for art’s sake versus art for the people‘s sake; AfriCOBRA for example, you know, that was part of that whole thing where their art had to be meaningful and we talked about society and it was absolutely a wonderful time in my life. As I look back on it—it really, really was.
RZ: Was it political?
YO: It was more cultural-political, yes it was, I was never the one to go out on the street waving, ranting, although I did march with Dr. King, I did march with King and a friend and I started a human relations club when I was an undergraduate, you know, but it was cultural-political in that the whole purpose for me having the gallery, outside of showcasing the works of African American artists, was to help encourage the community to rise to another level, you know? At one time we helped vote that whole strip dry, although it never actually became totally dry, I don‘t know what happened, but we actually were able to vote it dry and the idea was to just enhance the community with the presence of art. I saw other areas of the city where you have a lot of arts, and the people are kind of different, so the question I had now in hindsight is what came first, the chicken or the egg? I mean did the community develop because of the presence of the arts or did the art spring from the nature of the people indigenous to that community…
RZ: That‘s an interesting question! So did you have help or was it just you?
YO: When I first opened the gallery I had a boyfriend, his name was Jimmy Porter. He was a photographer, and we started it together but he was gone before the first month or something, I mean, not as a boyfriend, but for some reason he faded out of the picture and through the years I‘ve had people working with me in the gallery. One of my partners was a young lady named Ngozi, her name was Sheila Hollaman. Well, she has another name now, Sheila Rashid, but she was a jewelry maker and she made other types of crafts. I had another friend named Patricia McCombs who I still see, in fact we‘re employed by the same agency, and she did macramé work and things of that nature. Tazama Sun, who was a musician, in fact we just performed together last Saturday at the Universal Jazz Alley Jam, was a leather craftsman at my gallery for a very long time and then I had various other people, a whole series of people who would come and stay. These are people who are artists and they came and they would work with me for a while and I‘d exhibit their works.
RZ: And they‘d help out and like having the gallery open? Did you have extensive opening hours?
YO: No, it was usually open when I got off from work, because at the time, as I said, I was a teacher. During the summers when I was not working it would open like from 12 until whenever. But during the time I was working it would be open from usually about four o‘clock or five o‘clock on. When I had people like Tazama Sun doing the leather crafts and other people who did their work full time, they would have it open as well, so it would be open. It was never open usually before noon.
RZ: And how did you get the word out about your exhibitions and performances and things like that?
YO: As a graphic artist I really enjoy making flyers, so basically flyers. I sometimes put articles in newspapers, usually The Defender or Reader, and I‘d send notices elsewhere as well, and word of mouth was a very good way of getting things out. But especially creative flyers. That was part of what I enjoyed doing, you know, create visuals like the one I did with Omar that advertised a performance piece by the late Randson Boykin, a writer and performance poet.
RZ: Do you still have those flyers?
YO: I may have a couple of them; I may have one or two.
RZ: And were they silkscreened or were they mimeographed or…?
YO: No, I used T squares and illustration board, and of course I‘m an artist so I would do illustrations and use press-on letters, the ones that you press on one at a time. And then I would take them to a printer. Jay Letter and Printing was one of my favorite printers. They were on 75th and Jeffrey, they‘ve been long gone.
RZ: And what were-were there any particular events that you remember as like especially great or transformative or…?
YO: Oh heck yeah, I have so many; one was a multimedia performance with Henry Threadgill, the great AACM musician and Catherine Slade, a very well known artist-actress. They did a huge performance piece. Lester is a musician, but he also had some incredible artwork there and he did a performance piece, and I believe that was the same one with Henry Threadgill. Max Fran Smith, who was known for what were called Max Hats, had a big event where we had all types of performances and the attendance was really great; it was just a wonderful, wonderful experience. I had a barter and trade fair, which was really interesting and I had people come in and we had big signs on display and people could sign up for what they had to offer and you could also do a sign for what you wanted to buy or you could go around and barter. That was very successful, I did it one time with some friends, Aarafa Payne is one I‘m still in contact with to this day; she is in my band. The Literary Exchange, a book discussion group, also hosted an event at Osun. And then Kelan Phil Cohran did a presentation; all of the concerts were just incredible. Some of these people now are world-renowned. Interestingly very few of them even mention Osun even though they did come through there, and I think it‘s because it didn‘t have the same clout that, for example, performing at The Velvet Lounge would, which came along later, but in the early days, there weren‘t a whole lot of venues for much of the avant-garde activity and Osun was certainly one of those. So it was a lot of fun. I had fun and I didn‘t know at the time that people would remember me from just doing what I was having fun doing.
RZ: Were you also already a musician at that time?
YO: Yes, I got my first scholarship as an undergraduate for music, however, I wasn’t a music major.
RZ: So you knew musicians and visual artists equally, kind of?
YO: Yes, as a matter of fact. I went to Chicago Teachers College but they didn‘t have a band, so I performed in Richard Wang‘s band at Wilson Junior College, which at that time was right next door. It‘s now called Kennedy-King but back in the day it was Wilson Junior College. So I actually played second chair to Joseph Jarman in the clarinet section. When I graduated I received the John Philip Sousa Award.
RZ: It’s striking how intermingled the arts were in that time period in general, but also it sounds like really, at Osun—
YO: Well, Jose Williams is a visual artist and musician; Lester Lashley is a visual artist and musician. These are people that I really, really looked up to. Omar Lama is a visual artist and musician.
RZ: I think there was also a visual artist who was a whistler?
YO: Joel Brandon. He passed away. Omar Lama whistles too, but Joel Brandon was a very known whistler. Wesley Tyus was also a musician and an artist, visual artist, who exhibited at my gallery.
RZ: So it sounds like a very exciting time.
YO: For me it was, yes.
RZ: And what led you to close the gallery?
YO: Well, after years of carrying it of course, it became cumbersome. One of the exciting things about this time, today, is that you have groups like Diasporal Rhythms, a group of artists and collectors; there was no Diasporal Rhythms back in the day. You had people like Etta Moten Barnett who was a collector, and some others. Oh, Paul Osifo had a show at my gallery, he was a well-known African artist. Etta Moten Barnett and others would purchase works, but for the most part, I don‘t recall any movement like Diasporal Rhythms where people were really trying to acquire African or African American art. And because of that, by the way, most of the people who had galleries, all of us, we subsisted based on other things and so at some point, I said, “OK, it‘s time to close this.“ And what really pushed it over the edge was the building on the corner, it‘s a huge building, and a gang took over the building and the whole tenor of the neighborhood just changed.
RZ: What was the gang?
YO: Maybe it was Blackstone Rangers—I don‘t know, one of the gangs. The building, it‘s a vacant lot now, but it was a huge multi-unit building right on the corner of 74th and Kingston…75th.
RZ: A residential building?
YO: Residential building but I think there may have been some commercial units in it. But they took it over and then the neighborhood just changed and it didn‘t change in the direction that I was trying to get it to change. And I decided that I was going to go do something else. It was never profitable; it was never ever profitable. Not profitable financially, but it was profitable in other ways in terms of the contacts that I made, lifelong contacts, and just wonderful experiences and people who came through there that were just incredible. We had a spiritual foundation there as well. When I say spiritual, you were asking what some of the conversations were, but I did what‘s called “Osuniversity” at one point where we taught yoga, tai-chi, and other activities like that and discussed the nature of life and spirituality. So I guess my inclination has always been sort of in that direction as opposed to the hardcore political direction, which is not a value judgment, it‘s just that I was more on the other side.
RZ: Osuniversity! Did that go on for a while?
YO: Maybe a couple of summers.
RZ: And just back to the thing you said about the barter and trade event, did you have any particular inspiration for that?
YO: Well, I‘ve always had alternative notions of what poverty is and in my opinion, poverty is based on a person‘s consciousness, not just on dollars. Dollars are valuable because we give them value. Like I used to tell students, if there should be some cataclysm and we had nowhere to live, how valuable would money be? So anyway, the bottom line is that I said, “Well maybe we need to start looking at alternative ways of sharing resources.“ Because I‘ve always felt that people are our greatest resource. I said, “If you have what I need and I have what you need, why do we have to have an intermediary?“ At that time the idea was that we could begin to look at each other as resources and so we wouldn‘t have to, you know, have any intermediaries. We can exchange, share with each other, and some good things came out of it.
RZ: It seems like a very timely concept still. I don‘t know if you ever went to an alternative space called Mess Hall in Rogers Park. It was organized by a group of artists and part of their ethos was to not have any buying and selling. They would have art exhibitions but nothing would be bought or sold, and they had what they called “free stores“ where they would just encourage people to come and bring stuff and leave it and then other people to come and pick it up. To try to create an alternative economy that‘s not about money.
YO: That‘s it: alternative economy.
RZ: So yeah, so it seems like there are a lot of ideas that people had in the ’60 s and early ’70s that people are coming back to. Maybe they don‘t even know that they‘re coming back to them, maybe they don‘t even know that people had those ideas before, but they‘re still good ideas…
YO: And I think it was a good idea but I think if I became really successful in that they‘d probably shut me down—but that‘s another story.
RZ: I have one more question for you, which has to do with the South Side Community Art Center, which is just about what kind of community that space provided for you. Did you feel connected to it? Did you spend a lot of time there?
YO: I always say that I was on the board for about 15 years, and the other day I was trying to think, was it really 15 years? But it was at least 10 years. I felt very, very connected to the South Side Community Art Center. I was on the board for a long time and when Randson Boykin was the director, I worked as an assistant to him for a brief period. And even to this day, there‘s a part of me that wants to ensure that the South Side Community Art Center continues to be viable. Of course, as you know, it‘s the only WPA art center that continues to exist, and I know it was always a struggle financially. Hopefully, they‘ll do better now, because as I said there are actual major collectors now. We didn‘t have a real active collector presence back in the day. Did you write something on Facebook or did somebody write something on Facebook about how even today with AfriCOBRA more in the mainstream people are still not really purchasing?
RZ: It was David Lusenhop, I think.
YO: Right. So that‘s a challenge. I mean, when you look at AfriCOBRA—I thought that they were gods, you know! Barbara Jones-Hogu—in fact, she gave me a stack of books, a collection of art by one of my favorite artists. Nelson Stevens, Jeff Donaldson, all those people, Wadsworth, Napoleon, Omar, Sherman Beck, they were just the great gods, you know? And I always thought they were extremely great and didn‘t understand why they weren‘t noted more than they were, at that time. But it takes time, so now they‘re getting their props.
RZ: And it was Randson Boykin, the director you worked with, is that what you said?
RZ: When was he the director?
YO: Randson Cecil Boykin. I don‘t remember the years, but it was definitely in the ’70s, late ’70s maybe.
RZ: It does seem like there‘s a lot of energy around the Center now.
YO: I hope so, a resurgence of interest in black arts. But once again, I can’t over-emphasize the presence of groups like Diasporal Rhythms. I think they‘ve done a fantastic job in highlighting contemporary African American artists, so that is something that‘s good, that there wasn‘t anything like that before that I recall, or that of knew of, so I‘m glad that that‘s happening.