Tempestt Hazel Redefines Who Determines History
Written by Vocalo Radio on November 24, 2022
How does one understand history? How does history contribute to knowledge? Who determines what history is documented and how? This is what Tempestt Hazel explores.
Peoria-born, Bronzeville-rooted archivist, writer and curator Tempestt Hazel first moved to the city from California, looking for a place where she felt culturally connected. Hazel initially found herself in a Bronzeville apartment, standing across the street from the house where Ida B. Wells once lived.
Living in such proximity to historical landmarks and cultural hubs, Hazel felt inspired in her own archival work.
“I spend a lot of time thinking about history, and its relationship to how we understand the world and knowledge production,” Hazel said. “I spend a lot of time thinking about the way that cultural preservation is directly linked to how we understand what is valued in society, in the world.”
Hazel co-founded Sixty Inches From Center out of frustration with her art curriculum. She wasn’t seeing the artists she loved, or who looked like her, and was tired of the single path art historians are typically pushed to follow.
“A lot of the institutions that have been dedicated to a lot of our historical and cultural preservation have — for many reasons, systemic reasons and beyond — largely left out a lot of people who are like me and the people I love the most and my communities,” she explained.
Sixty Inches From Center is a collective of artists, archivists, writers and curators who focus on both the present and the past. The group creates a space to explore the definitions of history and preservation through their own collaborative projects and residencies across the city.
For this installment of “This is What Chicago Sounds Like,” Tempestt Hazel explains the mission of Sixty Inches From Center, the abundance of inspiration in Bronzeville and the relationship between history, knowledge and institutions.
Are you from Chicago?
I was born and raised in Peoria, Illinois, the heart of Illinois. But I’ve been in Chicago for the past 15 years, in Bronzeville for all of those 15 years. Really, I came to Chicago because I was looking for a place to catch me culturally, because I was in California doing fashion design, actually, for several years and then came back to the Midwest. And wanted to come back to the Midwest. And Chicago made the most sense as a hub for culture. There are so many things that keep me in Chicago. I think what drew me to Bronzeville was happenstance, what kept me in Bronzeville was just, I love the neighborhood. And I love the history. It turns out, I have family roots here. So my father and my grandmother and my family church is in Bronzeville, I’ve come to find out. I think Bronzeville keeps me, because it just feels like the right neighborhood in the city for me.
What do you love about your neighborhood?
The South Side as a whole has its own history that I’ve fallen in love with over the years, but Bronzeville, in particular… I remember the first time riding my bike along King Drive and realizing my first apartment was across the street from Ida B Wells’ house and you’re just like, “What?” How do you understand living amongst the history like that? And living in such close proximity. And, as I started to understand and research the history of Bronzeville, you realize that it’s such an important hub for Black cultural production, Black business… just Black history and culture. It’s hard not to feel the energy of the neighborhood, and I feel like, over the years, it’s really fed me, as far as inspiration. Of having people to turn to, institutions that have endured. South Side Community Art Center, Dr. Margaret Burroughs, people like that. It’s… forever a place to remind me of why I do what I do, and what kind of continuum I’m on, and who I have direct contact, by being in the neighborhood, to the people who ultimately set me up to be able to even do what I do now. I love it here.
What is the focus of your work?
I spend a lot of time thinking about history, and its relationship to how we understand the world and knowledge production… I spend a lot of time thinking about the way that cultural preservation is directly linked to how we understand what is valued in society, in the world. I think a lot about what each of us has to have a hand in shaping and disrupting the education, the curricula, the kind of information that has been deemed the most important, how we can actually disrupt and question that more deeply, and the tools for doing that. I do that through my own writing practice, which is very much rooted in archives and thinking about history and thinking about making connections that perhaps aren’t usually made.
A lot of what Sixty Inches From Center does is rooted in all of that, too. We’re very much so thinking about the ways that artists and archives are essential to understanding the world and understanding history. Also, the role that we play in just, again, questioning and disrupting the information that we’ve been given. A lot of the institutions that have been dedicated to a lot of our historical and cultural preservation have — for many reasons, systemic reasons and beyond — largely left out a lot of people who are like me and the people I love the most and my communities, within those histories and stories.
Tell us about Sixty Inches From Center. What is it, and when did you start it?
We’re founded in 2010. Sixty came out of a grievance in the education that I was receiving, and not really seeing the artists who I knew got me most interested in getting into art, seeing them not incorporated into the curriculum or relegated to electives or things like that… Additionally, the idea that there was a certain path for art historians, you could get a PhD… you could strive to be a curator at a museum or something like that. Sixty was created to push back against all of those things. We started off as a publication for those of us who needed a place to talk about the art that we loved and that we were seeing, and wanted to test out our own writing skills and also to add to the cultural criticism or the writing ecosystem here in Chicago. We were often asking ourselves about, “How do you change? How do you get to the root of the issue for us?” Which was what we’re being taught, and what we’re being told is valuable, is omitting folks like us. How do we change that? Additionally, we do a lot of work with archiving and archivists and different archives around the city to create artist residencies, so that artists can spend time doing, what I personally is my favorite thing, and that’s explore archives and working with groups like The Blackivists, which is an amazing, amazing group of professionally-trained archivists that focus on memory work and Black cultural preservation.
Honestly, it’s for us to create spaces to be nerdy and to have artists and archivists in conversation with each other, and in conversation with us. One thing about Sixty is that we shape-shift depending on who we’re working with. We do different projects all the time, and a lot of it is people approaching us with an idea, and then us working to co-create something. That keeps it really exciting.
What are y’all working on these days?
Right now, we’re working on some documenting of our own work through our first book, actually, for what’s called the Chicago Archives + Artists Project. It’s where we pair artists with different archives, and they work with archivists to develop projects and do research together. We’re actually working on building up a platform and a program called Sixty Collective that will focus on caring for the artists and the writers within our network, and creating a program that directly focuses on their needs and ways to address the work of freelance and gig-based artists and arts workers. That’s very, very exciting.
What keeps you in Chicago? Why you want to continue your work here?
I cut my teeth in the arts in Chicago. The first exhibitions I ever did were all in Bronzeville, and they were all very Chicago-specific and neighborhood-specific. There’s something about a Chicago energy… no matter where I go, no matter what other cities, I go to… it never really feels quite like Chicago, and what Chicago has. I think my understanding of the ways that community organizing and the work that artists do, and systems change, and being such a direct link to that, being such a life force of that, that’s not just a thing that we see right now or have seen over the past, say, five or 10 years. That’s something that is in the water of Chicago. Historically, it has always been a place where artists have been a driver of such change and dedication to addressing systemic issues, working with artists and working with communities. It’s a whole different type of education. And that’s something that has… forever shaped me.
I don’t know if there are any other cities that do it quite like Chicago.
Since 2016, we have been profiling people who give their all to Chicago — enriching us socially and culturally by virtue of their artistry, social justice work and community-building. Take a listen. Read their words. Become inspired.
Interview and audio production by Ari Mejia
Photography and written introduction by Makenzie Creden
Transcription and editing for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca
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