The Art of Celebrating Women

Mar 5, 2024

These Chicago art shows and programs feature women artists who advance equity and inclusion through their work

This Women’s History Month, we’re not just spotlighting women artists: we’re appreciating those who actively commit to paving the way for others. Celebrate with us as we look back on just a few of our favorite women-led ART on THE MART moments, pinpoint local public art projects by women honoring women, and highlight some current happenings from our friends across the city.

Revisiting ART on THE MART Women Artist Takeovers

Visuals of works by Bisa Butler projected onto the building facade of THE MART, presented in partnership with the Art Institute of Chicago.

Bisa Butler | Portraits
In tandem with her exhibition of the same name at the Art Institute of Chicago, Bisa Butler translated her textile-based works into digital projections accompanied by a custom soundscape for ART on THE MART’s Spring 2021 season. While many established artists devote much of their time to teaching, not many do so at the grade school levels — Butler, however, served as a high school art teacher for 15 years in her hometown of New Jersey. Her commitment to the next generation of artists is evidenced by the lesson plans and educator resources she continues to craft as companions to her projects, even as she routinely lands shows at major international galleries and institutions. 

. Yiyun Kang | Only in the Dark
Armed with a BFA in Painting, an MFA in Media Arts, and a PhD in Information Experience Design, Dr. Yiyung Kang’s work recasts traditionally male-dominated disciplines like math, science, and engineering as sources of artistic inspiration and curiosity. Her captivating multimedia works build bridges from one system of thought to another, and she actively seeks to exhibit her large-scale, immersive installations in almost exclusively public spaces. This way, she says, her work has no barrier for entry, and is more likely to reach diverse audiences who can draw new connections — perhaps building meanings and impacts that even Kang herself would not have anticipated.

Stewart | Billiken
The core elements of house music are now embedded in the DNA of countless contemporary chart-toppers. Our city, however, has never stopped celebrating this cultural heritage, architected by Black queer DJs and dancers of the 1980s Chicago underground club scene. In 2022, we hosted a project led by Shkunna Stewart, director of local youth dance troupe Bringing Out Talent, in collaboration with filmmaker Wills Glasspiegel and house DJ RP Boo. The trio combined footage, animation, and an original soundtrack to showcase the local youth dance groups and marching bands that participate annually in Chicago’s much-beloved Bud Billiken Parade, a prime example of the city’s enduring reverence for its cultural roots. 'Billiken' highlighted the power of house music and dance as a community-building tool that uplifts youth and those subjected to oppression, even to this day. Stewart, who has dedicated her life to youth dance — following in the footsteps of her mother, her mother’s mother, and her mother’s mother’s mother — put it best: “We save lives through dance. We give youth a place to be themselves, to build confidence and joy. ‘Billiken’ shows that.”

Public Art By Women, Celebrating Women

A mural on the side of a building depicting figures of the suffragette movement flying out of a teenage girl's open book.

Elizabeth Catlett | Floating Family, West Garfield Park
Hanging above the circulation desk at the Legler Branch of the Chicago Public Library, Elizabeth Catlett’s (b. 1915 – d. 2012) Floating Family appears to portray a mother and daughter suspended in midair, seemingly anchored only by their grasp of each others’ hands. Carved out of a single Mexican primavera tree trunk, the work is characteristic of Catlett’s oeuvre: through her paintings, sculptures, and relief prints, the artist consistently strove to venerate the beauty and resilience of Black women throughout history and across cultures.

(Jasmina Cazacu) | On the Wings of Change, South Side 
In the mid 1850s, the national women’s suffrage movement was born in Earlville, Illinois. On the Wings of Change considers how lessons learned from local activist history might inspire future generations and inform current organizing efforts. Installed by muralist and illustrator Diosa (Jasmina Cazacu), whose work transcends white cubes and spills into the streets, the mural depicts ten Chicagoan suffragettes flying off the pages of a teenage girl's open book. Vanessa, the real-life fourteen-year-old Diosa photographed as a reference, will vote for the first time in the 2024 election — enacting the legacy of the women who fought for her basic rights.   

McMahon | Gwendolyn Brooks: The Oracle of Bronzeville, North Kenwood
Traditionally, governments and cultural decision-makers have erected memorials mostly to male historical figures, neglecting the women and non-white people who made critical contributions to their local communities. This bronze, wood, and stone statue by Margot McMahon, honoring Chicago-based poet Gwendolyn Brooks (b. 1917 – d. 2000), is the first sculpture of a Black woman placed in a Chicago park — an encouraging signal of the growing global effort to correct the historical record. During her lifetime, Brooks herself achieved many "firsts," most notably becoming the first Black person to receive a Pulitzer Prize. Brooks’s barrier-shattering work fused colloquial language, masterful literary techniques, and her personal commitment to activism, revolutionizing the possibilities of the format for innumerable poetry readers and writers. 

Women-Focused Exhibits On View Now

An image depicting five women and one child, sitting across two separate wooden bleacher-like structures on a beach. Between the wooden bleachers is a wooden vanity, the ovular mirror of which reflects a green tree in bloom.

A Long Walk Home | Freedom Square: Black Girlhood Altar at the Chicago Cultural Center
A culmination of nonprofit organization A Long Walk Home’s years of work embedded in the local community, this exhibit fuses artmaking and advocacy to create an outlet for collective emotional healing. By honoring the legacies of eight Black women whose deaths or disappearances galvanized the founders of A Long Walk Home, Black Girlhood Altar creates new opportunities for public mourning, reflection, conversation, and accountability. The exhibition marks its closure with the "Black Girl Takeover," a building-wide, all-day, free series of public events on March 10th. Workshops include Yoga, Hair Braiding, Altar Making, Ritual Tree-Making, Double Dutch, Weaving, Children's Storytelling, TikTok, and Photography.
Image: Scheherazade Tillet, The Offerings to Yemaya, Rainbow Beach Chicago, 2021

Maren Hassinger | This is How We Grow at the Art Institute of Chicago

Over her four-decades-long career, Maren Hassinger has always sought to connect viewers not just to each other but to the natural and industrial materials that make up our physical surroundings. Her first solo exhibition in the U.S. features two site-specific installations for the Art Institute that simply won’t be the same anywhere else — so you’ll want to check the show out before it closes April 21st.

Various Artists | 25th International Open at Women Made Gallery

Since its opening in 1992, the nonprofit Women Made Gallery has featured over 9,000 women, femme-identifying, nonbinary, and gender-expansive artists. On view March 2 through 30, the 25th International Open focuses on 40 artists whose works challenge both medium and conceptual boundaries. The show is free and open to the public in Women Made’s University Village location, Thursdays through Sundays, noon to 5 p.m.