Review of South Side Venus: The Legacy of Margaret Burroughs

South Side Venus: The Legacy of Margaret Burroughs
Mary Ann Cain

Northwestern University Press, Evanston, Illinois, 2018
240 pp., illus. b/w. Paper, $18.95
ISBN: 9780810137950.

Reviewed by
Kathryn Adams
September 2019

“Her story is unique in that it was not about a single achievement—not just as an artist, a museum founder, a teacher, or an activist. It was unique in its success at being and staying connected to a larger experience. Her art was the means by which she made and maintained these connections by crossing otherwise uncrossable lines”. (p. 22)

It is a delight to come across a book that introduces readers to someone as inspirational, creative, forthright, perceptive and resourceful as the long-lived Margaret Burroughs (1917-2010). As a political activist, artist, educator, writer, founder of the South Side Community Art Centre and the DuSable Museum of African American History, Burroughs did much for her beloved community in the historical Bronzeville district, South Side Chicago. In Mary Ann Cain’s book, South Side Venus: The Legacy of Margaret Burroughs, the author examines this artist’s illustrious life and career using archival research and interviews with colleagues, family and friends who were all transformed in some way by Burroughs and her zest for life, change, and art.

Cain’s research and in-depth academic commentary on Burroughs is bolstered by her own conversations with the artist that took place in 2003 when Cain met Burroughs in her hometown. The pair set off from Burroughs’ home on a lengthy walk together, stopping at various important landmarks and buildings along the way—a monument honouring WWI African-American soldiers; The Supreme Life Building—once the place of “black-initiated business” and the site where Burroughs and other African American artists held their first art fair in the 1950s when they were shunned from other art shows held in the city. The conversations from this stroll with Burroughs are interspersed throughout the book alongside historical research—a technique that sets it apart from other biographies—and what emerges is a congenial and gracious picture of a highly regarded artist and activist whose drive and initiative inspired many people both locally and globally over decades.

Originally from Louisiana, Burroughs moved to Chicago with her family in 1922 to escape the racial segregation laws of the Southern United States, but with Chicago’s own history of racial rioting, growing up as a young African American working class girl in Chicago at this time was challenging. Apart from family, the one constant in Burroughs’ life was art. She started drawing from a very young age and, encouraged by her mother, understood early on that art was “a means to connect with others”.  Her schoolteacher and mentor, Mary L Ryan, also encouraged her and was instrumental in helping Burroughs qualify for teacher’s college in 1937 which lead to a Bachelor of Arts and later a Master of Arts degree in art education.

“…Mary Ryan realised that I had few opportunities…I would make watercolours and bring them to show her. She would hold raffles to sell them, and then would give me the money. With the money, I could buy books and pay for car fare and have lunch money”. (p.23)

The forward written by Haki Madhubuti is heartfelt and sets the tone for the rest of the book. He first met Margaret Burroughs in her living room in 1962, which was also the original site of today’s DuSable Museum (then called the Ebony Museum of Negro History). Margaret and husband Charles Burroughs co-founded the museum and were an inspiration to Madhubuti and many others who not only visited the museum but regularly visited the Burroughs’ home for debate and lively conversation. During the 1950s when McCarthyism was at its height, singer and social activist Paul Robeson, who was Margaret Burroughs’ inspiration, was also a visitor in her home.

“I consider myself fortunate that my acquaintance with Paul Robeson grew into a friendship that withstood the strains and stresses of the McCarthy Witch Hunt period. When few homes were open to him, he was always welcome at our home”. (p.109)

There is a real sense of calm in Cain’s style of writing even though much of the content is about turbulent and seriously political times. During the McCarthy period Burroughs was questioned before the board of education about her political views and denied membership to the Art Centre she founded. South Side Venus details this period of Burroughs’ life and her connections to a whole host of like-minded political artists, journalists, actors and poets such as Pulitzer Prize winner and friend, Gwendolyn Brooks.

With so many strings to Margaret Burroughs’ bow and being active into her nineties, Cain has done an impressive job in enabling the spotlight to fall onto so many different aspects of her life. However, considering Burroughs’ talent as an artist was so multifaceted—painting, drawing, printmaking, sculpture—more about her artworks would have been welcomed. The black and white photographs included in the book are a wonderful representation of Burroughs in all her roles, and the close-up of her hands simply captioned “Hands of the artist” is particularly poignant, but it is a pity there isn’t a larger representation of her own artwork here.

For anyone interested in art, art history, African American history/politics, women’s studies and biographies in general, South Side Venus: The Legacy of Margaret Burroughs is highly recommended. For a small book, it contains so much information, and with its comprehensive index, educators would find this a useful supportive teaching resource. The real strength of this book is the subject herself, Margaret Burroughs, and how lucky we are that Mary Ann Cain chose to write about her.