CPS Student Artwork Reflects on Black History to Break Down Stereotypes
STUDENTS | February 20, 2021
CPS Student Artwork Reflects on Black History to Break Down Stereotypes

When looking at Lane Tech senior Tooke E.’s nail art—such as their piece titled Ratchet, Ghetto, Beautiful (pt. 2)—you might be surprised to learn that an entire set of nails usually stems from an idea for a single nail. 

“Most of my nails are freestyles, so I’ll sit down and think of one nail that I really want to do,” they said. “They’re not usually identical sets, so once I think of that one nail, I’ll then think about the colors, patterns, and even gems I can add to the entire set.” 

Tooke says their passion for art started with learning how to draw a starfish in the first grade at Jordan Elementary in Rogers Park and has grown into a varied skill set that includes painting, knitting, and crocheting. Nail art is an especially personal form of artistic expression for them because of its deep connections to Black history in the United States. 

“The appearance of Black women throughout history, such as having long fingernails, has been stereotyped as part of finding ways to say that their femininity will never be enough and that they will never be enough,” they said. “Their bodies are masculinized and treated as cargo; the only time they can be feminine is as a Mammy stereotype.” 

Allowing Black artists to express themselves unapologetically is an important part of what Black History Month represents for Tooke, but they are also quick to note that it is not only a month to focus on American Black history, but rather the entire African diaspora. 

As a Nigerian immigrant, geography, history, and art intersect through Tooke’s relationship with their parents. An example of this connects back to their nails—while their parents initially disapproved of them wearing nail art, their perspective shifted once they realized the time and artistry that went into each set. 

Tooke is not only a Black artist but also a lover of the Black creativity that they see from others on a daily basis. They believe that finding your voice through art as a Black student starts with finding a strong community of other Black students. 

“Having that Black community to hold yourself to is really important because it helps you grow and nurture yourself,” they said. “When you’re able to step away from the anti-Blackness of the outside world, you start to realize that what we are taught to hate about Black people, such as nails, fashion trends, or our hair, is what defines us and our culture the most.” 

Senn High School senior and Black Student Union president Tyshaun Z. says that his sense of community starts with his family—a family of artists. He explains that he was always encouraged to love and appreciate his Blackness growing up, something he sees as a sharp contrast to the larger historical context of Black people not being allowed to be who they were. 

His art, like Portrait of George Stinney, often reflects on historical events directly while creating layers of meaning through his artistic choices. With this piece, he decided to paint the face of a Black teenager who received the death penalty on a red bandana. Using the bandana as a canvas is meant to symbolize the criminalization of Black men. 

“The process of creating my George Stinney piece shows how as an artist you make unintentional choices that you don’t realize until afterward,” he said. “Having the juxtaposition of an innocent person on a bandana made me think more about the stereotype of the bandana itself.” 

Having lived on the West Side of Chicago his entire life, Tyshaun also explores his relationship with the city through his artwork. Not only does he think of Black history in terms of historical events, he also considers the importance of generational differences and relationships. His painting Untitled is subtly rooted in Chicago—the city’s symbol for a vacant property is the only clue—while using gunshot wounds to illuminate coming of age as a Black Chicagoan. 

Untitled is about hope, and it’s about reflection. It’s about looking at people who have been through things,” he said. “It’s about generational trauma and protecting our youth.” 

Though his art doesn’t shy away from the struggles of being Black, Tyshaun says that Black History Month also reminds him of all the contributions that Black leaders have made, and those contributions amount to the reality that being Black is a blessing. 

“Students should be encouraged to explore different aspects of their identity this month and see how impactful they are both to them and to others,” he said. “Black culture is very revolutionary and important to society.” 

Tooke and Tyshaun are just two of the many CPS students who are using art to express their values, cultures, passions and identities. Check out the entire 2021 Senior Portfolio Exhibition here.