Cecil McDonald Jr. uses photography, video, and text to explore the intersections of masculinity, familial relations, and the artistic and intellectual pursuits of black culture. McDonald studied fashion, house music and dance club culture before receiving a MFA in Photography at Columbia College Chicago, where he currently serves as an adjunct professor and a teaching artist at the Center for Community Arts Partnership at Columbia College Chicago. His work has been exhibited both nationally and internationally, with works in the permanent collection of The Cleveland Museum of Art, Chicago Bank of America LaSalle Collection, and the Harris Bank Collection. He was awarded the: Joyce Foundation Midwest Voices & Visions Award, the Artadia Award, The Swiss Benevolent Society, Lucerne, Switzerland, Residency and the 3Arts Teaching Artist Award. McDonald participated in Light Work’s Artist-in-Residence program in July 2013.
Domestic Observations and Occurrences is a glimpse into the everyday moments of a handful of scholars, curators, and artists who live and work in the Washington Park neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. Cecil McDonald allows us to observe the beautifully mundane moments that usually go unseen. From his position as a native of Chicago’s south side, he is able to show a deep appreciation for commonalities in the human experience while also paying homage to a Black experience and a Chicago experience. He merges them which ultimately gives a point of entry for anyone, whether you live on the south side of Chicago or not. He makes it easy for anyone to relate, even if the streets beyond the walls of the photographs are seen as foreign and forbidden territory to many people around the globe and even in other parts of Chicago.
The way in which he welcomes you into the spaces is alluring. Though no eye contact is ever made between the viewer and the subjects, other subtle signs invite you in. Richard Pryor peers out at you from a television screen. Billie Holiday serenades you with a sweet and silent song. An African mask, hidden in the shadows, gazes out at you from the wall. Doorways, stairways, and mirrors are empty, waiting for you to enter their frames. Books lie waiting for you to discover the lives, art, and thoughts of some of the most profound people of the twentieth century by way of the lives of profound people of the twenty-first century.
These welcoming details, along with the other objects that keep them company, create patterns and flows that pull the eye through each photograph and sometimes back to investigate something you may have looked at but did not truly see. Three warm, circular lights above a woman blow-drying her hair catch your attention; then the pattern of the shower curtain guides you through to the dots of a garment hugging the opposite edge of the frame. A skylight with natural light pouring through its blinds seems to provide inspiration for a single white light that helps frame a man flipping through an issue of Artforum. Alongside the formal cues, carefully placed objects draw unpredicted parallels between the photographs. Manning Marable’s book Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention makes a couple of appearances on a bookshelf in one home and on a table in another. African sculptures rest on coffee tables and shelves across several spaces. The photographs build upon one another using these details as their basis.
Once these components are put into place, McDonald is then free to do what he does best. Using a mastery of lighting, color, and rhythm that has become his signature, he charges the spaces with vibrating energies. His attention to the prominent shapes and their repeated occurrences, often augmented by the lighting, create a rhythm that pulses from image to image. The rooms become almost cinematic. Most viewers can identify with the forgettable acts he has chosen to capture — searching the web from the comfort of a couch, tidying up the living room, or grooming oneself in order to prepare for the day. But through McDonald’s lens these moments become significant. The objects and bodies set the stage of a reality by existing as they always have, but the lighting provides a mysticism, which results in a space where biography meets myth. The devices he uses are what set these photographs apart from the average environmental portrait. McDonald is not merely capturing a person and their things. He is collaborating with them. He is composing with them. He becomes a conductor who has a keen understanding of how to make his style and the essence of his subjects coalesce.
At a glance, these photos may feel like an invitation for the outsider to quietly observe these people from a distance, but they are, arguably, welcoming the outsider to find familiarity in what they are not told to expect. The photographs also affirm to the insider what they already know: that our commonalities far outweigh our differences and there is enchantment to be found in both. These photographs serve as evidence that reality is a blend of myth, lived experience, and constructed truths. And Cecil McDonald Jr. generously provides the framework in which we can see it.
Tempestt Hazel is an independent curator, writer, artist advocate, and executive director of Sixty Inches From Center, a Chicago-based online publication and archiving organization.
Cecil McDonald Jr. lives in Chicago, IL, and completed his residency at Light Work in July 2013.