Student’s art exhibit questions, reimagines concept of blackness

UIC senior Oluwaseyi Adeleke (right) will display his art exhibit in Student Center East through May 4.

When he was 17 years old, UIC student Oluwaseyi Adeleke began to understand his calling. Quite literally, while sitting in a classroom in Nigeria, as his teacher translated his last name, Adeleke, to him.

Its meaning? Progression with the Krown.

Adeleke’s love of fashion and dedication to social justice led to the creation of his clothing brand PRGRSSN: a fusion of fashion and justice resulting in socially conscious clothing that pays homage to monumental moments, movements and leaders in black history, including Fred Hampton, Stokely Carmichael, Mae Carol Jemison, the Black Panther Party, and more.

“When I think back on the name of the brand, I think that has so much power. When you think about progress and what that word means, and to think, you know, you’re making progression with the crown. That kind of relates to how black people, and all people, come from this lineage of kings and queens that we should never forget, so that’s something I always try to push through my clothing,” said Adeleke, a senior in economics.

Some messages and moments are just too difficult to accurately convey and recreate on a t-shirt, though. But this did not pose a limitation on Adeleke; rather, it created an opportunity.

Adeleke is hosting the opening reception for his first art exhibition, “Black University: A PRGRSSN Art Experience,” at 6 p.m. April 13 in the Montgomery Ward Art Gallery in Student Center East. Black University is an interactive art show featuring more than 10 artists, actors and visionaries who examine, question and reimagine the concept of blackness throughout American history. The exhibit will be on display through May 4.

Each artist being featured was given the creative freedom to highlight various black leaders while maintaining their own artistic integrity. This makes the exhibition multifaceted, intimate and raw by allowing visitors to experience both the emotions of the moments being recreated, and the experience of the artists who grappled with them.

Adeleke’s intentions for the exhibition are also multidimensional, as he aims to both teach and help heal.

“I really want people to walk into the space, learn something they don’t know, and know how important black art is to the history of blackness,” he said. “I want people to use this as an opportunity to learn, and then, in turn, teach. And most importantly, heal.

“I want people to walk into the space and whatever traumas they walked in with about their blackness, and I want them to walk into the space and remember the leaders that came before them, and remember that while black people have had a history that always hasn’t been the best, we’ve also had this history that’s provided us with some of the greatest leaders that this world has ever seen. So I really want people to take the opportunity to heal and also understand the importance of black art.”

PRGRSSN’s goals to empower students is a main priority for the show.

“I want to let people know that if you have a dream, if you have a vision, you can do it,” Adeleke said. “When I told people I was doing an art show (on campus) they were really surprised and were like, ‘I didn’t know you could just do an art show on campus.’ They didn’t know you could have a space here.”

Empowering others has been at the core of everything Adeleke has done with PRGRSSN since its inception in 2015. Adeleke has helped other students financially with school from his proceeds, and he hopes to help future students, too.

“I just don’t see myself stopping giving out scholarships; I don’t see myself stopping designing, stopping creating,” he said.

“I’m doing this because I really want students to understand that you don’t need a lot of money, you don’t need someone famous to back you up to make a difference. All you need is a passion for something and execution. A lot of us are just too afraid to do what’s in our mind.”

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