For Artist Tonika Lewis Johnson, Chicago’s Map Is The Medium
Written by Vocalo Radio on March 30, 2023
Lifelong Englewood resident Tonika Lewis Johnson is the creator of Folded Map Project, a social justice art project using photography, video and the map of Chicago to combat segregation and connect neighbors from opposite sides of the city.
Social justice artist Tonika Lewis Johnson keeps Chicago at front of mind with every project she creates. Commuting 15 miles from Englewood to Lane Tech High School as a teenager in the ‘90s, she started to realize the wide range of Chicagoans’ identities and made friends she may never have met otherwise.
“Having that kind of experience for four years gave me an insight into how people can experience … the expansion of your worldview from diversity,” she recalled.
Johnson started making waves in Chicago when she co-founded Resident Association of Greater Englewood (R.A.G.E) in 2010, with the purpose to “mobilize people and resources to force positive change in Englewood through solution-based approaches.” Throughout her career, her works strive to spark conversation around injustice in neighborhoods on the city’s South and West Sides, including her home.
“My work … explicitly focus[es] on inequities and segregation and all of the psychological nuances that come from it,” she explained. “That’s what I mean when I say ‘social justice artist,’ that the art I create is usually to educate the larger public about how to personalize large systemic issues.”
As a photojournalist and visual artist, Johnson took her activism to a new level when she created the Folded Map Project: a multimedia project that tackles institutionalized racism that keeps the city separated. Folded Map Project harkens back to the notion that, though Chicago is a city full of diversity, communities on opposite sides of downtown often don’t overlap due to systemic segregation and historic redlining tactics.
Johnson literally and metaphorically folds the city’s map to connect neighbors on opposite sides of the city — think connecting residents with the same or similar addresses on the same street, only 15 miles apart. The project initially started as photography of just the buildings’ outsides, referred to as “Address Pairs,” but evolved to introduce “Map Twins,” the residents living inside those buildings, to one another. The “Map Twins” conversations are video recorded, and largely revolve around systemic racism, neighborhood misconceptions and how to bridge the gaps between the north and South Sides.
“The conversations that the ‘Map Twins’ have do explore racism in a different way,” Johnson expressed. “When I share my work to Black and Brown audiences in Chicago, they often thank me for creating a project that makes it easy for people to understand how we feel about our neighborhoods, how we love them, but how we know they’ve been mistreated.”
In 2017, Johnson was named Chicago Magazine’s Chicagoan of the Year for her work with Folded Map Project. Folded Map Project was also adapted into a stage play by Collaboraction Theatre Company in 2018, and a documentary film about the project premiered in August 2020 at Chicago’s South Side Film Festival. The film is now available for purchase on the project’s website.
In this segment of “This Is What Chicago Sounds Like,” Tonika Lewis Johnson discusses her passion for telling the story of Chicagoans, her love for Englewood and how she hopes to help neighbors build bridges instead of walls.
Introduce yourself, and describe your work in a few words.
My name is Tonika Lewis Johnson. I am a social justice artist, and my primary medium is the Chicago landscape.
Where are you from?
I am from Englewood! South Side Chicago, born and raised. It’s home. Don’t you know, like, when you travel outside of where you live or where you grew up, and then when you come back home, it’s like, even just breathing the air, you’re like, “Oh, the air feels like home.” [Laughs] So that’s what this neighborhood is to me. It’s like as soon as I enter into Englewood, I feel like I’m going back to my grandmother’s house. I’m going… you know, everything is familiar. I have so many memories. This is where I’m Tonika from 62nd and Loomis. So yeah, it’s home. It just, it feels like a big hug.
Tell us about the work you do.
First and foremost, I’m a creative. My primary medium is photography, but before that I was into poetry. And now my work has evolved into several projects that explicitly focus on inequities and segregation and all of the psychological nuances that come from it. Each project, all of the ones that have come after “Folded Map,” have dealt with large systemic issues. That is my passion, that’s where I love, like, interrogating. So that’s what I mean when I say “social justice artist,” that the art I create is usually to educate the larger public about how to personalize large systemic issues.
What is the Folded Map Project?
Folded Map is a multimedia art project that includes photography and video, and also Chicago’s large-scale grid map, to help people visualize what disparity and equity looks like, while also bringing people together who live at similar addresses on the same street, but 15 miles apart. Folding Chicago’s map and its zero point downtown, and bringing people together from the neighborhoods that would touch each other if you folded the map. Folded Map is my life in an art project.
I went to high school in 1993, I went to Lane Tech High School, from Englewood. So that was a significant commute, 15 miles every morning. What I realized, when I got to Lane Tech, how diverse it was, how diverse Chicago was, and the friendships that I built with people that I would not have met otherwise, because of Chicago’s segregation. So having that kind of experience for four years gave me an insight into how people can experience the affirmation and the expansion of your worldview from diversity. My early high school experience and college, because I went to Columbia College for journalism, really taught me, if you get to know Chicago, you really do get insight into the rest of the country.
Was Folded Map always going to include people meeting each other?
So it was only supposed to be a photography project that highlighted specific addresses on the same street in Rogers Park, Andersonville, Edgewater neighborhoods, and Englewood. And as I started narrowing down which streets I wanted to photograph, and the homes I wanted to photograph, that’s when the idea of, “Man it would be so interesting if the people who lived in these homes met each other.” But I just put it out of my head. I was like, “No, I don’t feel like talking to people. I just want to do the photography. And I feel like that would be powerful enough.” You know, life does what it does. Projects do what they do, they evolve, and it evolved into the most — for me — the most beautiful part of the project, which is the “Map Twins.” So you have the address pairs, which are the homes that are similar addresses, but then you have the “Map Twins”: their portraits, and then the videos of them meeting each other for the first time.
The conversations that the “Map Twins” have do explore racism in a different way. When I share my work to Black and Brown audiences in Chicago, they often thank me for creating a project that makes it easy for people to understand how we feel about our neighborhoods, how we love them, but how we know they’ve been mistreated. That affirmation is important, but then also, they get to experience discomfort, too, because they get to hear how people view their neighborhood. And how much of a problem that is.
You can only imagine what people think — you don’t even have to imagine, we know what people think of neighborhoods like Englewood. It’s uncomfortable to talk about that. And it’s uncomfortable to even try to understand how people got to be programmed that way. The “Map Twins” had that experience, getting to talk about it, getting to stumble and make mistakes, and getting to learn about a neighborhood in a different way. Everyone who participated in this project, they have a shared commonality of wanting to do something about segregation. And this is the grace that we have to give people, in order to really truly disrupt it and be transparent. It was no requirement that they have to stay in touch. I’m like, “Look, y’all, I just… this is a weird experiment, okay? And we’re all in it for fun, okay?” To my surprise, they kept in touch! And the first “Map Twins,” they expanded the project without me. They created “Block Twins.” They introduced their neighbors to each other, and they have a whole initiative that they created outside of “Folded Map” themselves called “Englewood Renaissance,” and it’s literally two blocks from different neighborhoods, racially, economically different neighborhoods, coming together to help greater Englewood.
Chicago is so central to the work you do! What continues to inspire you?
So much of the organizing, the historic organizing, the multiracial organizing that the rest of the country has benefited from has occurred in Chicago. It’s just my muse, like I love it here. I love it. I love it.
Since 2016, we have been profiling people who give their all to Chicago and enrich 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
Introduction written by Morgan Ciocca and Joshua X. Miller
Photography by Ari Mejia, edited by Morgan Ciocca
Transcription and editing for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca
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