As an emerging interdisciplinary artist, Sulyiman Stokes, whose name was explained to him by his father as “one who brings out the light from within others”, is rapidly gaining recognition on the South Side and across the city. And it tells black stories along the way, through photography and music.
By his own account, Stokes’ photographic journey began quite unexpectedly. It was only at the age of twenty that he got hold of his first camera.
“I think I had a Canon Rebel or some random camera that was like a hundred bucks or something,” Stokes said. “I wasn’t serious about photography or anything, you know, I just bought a camera, being on college campus… But 2018 is when I got serious about photography in as a medium… I transitioned into that as part of my art.
Stokes’ photographs are Dierdre Robinson. Through them, he captures how black people express their diverse talents and rich culture on a daily basis. Take, for example, his rich and vivid image of stilt walkers dressed in African attire moving effortlessly through the crowds of Hamilton Park in Englewood during an outdoor event. Or the expressive image of young people learning to make banjos at a summer workshop in Lincoln Park sponsored by Music Moves Chicago.
Stokes captures the essence of his subjects through the use of moving and expressive imagery. “I don’t really set up shots,” Stokes said. “I don’t really do that kind of thing…Because I really want to document a person as they are at that moment.”
Although he’s only been in photography for four years, Stokes has already achieved a lot. And it shows no signs of slowing down. Besides photography, Stokes is also into music and somehow finds time for that extra talent he developed in his early youth.
“In high school, my first instrument was the clarinet,” Stokes recounted. “Then it became trumpet, and…when I went to high school, my band manager switched me to baritone.” Along the way, Stokes learned to play tuba, piano, and French horn.
And let’s not forget the battery. As a daily ritual, Stokes “speaks” through his drums as a form of meditation as if connecting with ancestors. His favorite drums are the djembe, a goblet drum tuned with a string and covered with skin played with his bare hands. Sometimes he speaks through the cajón, a box-shaped percussion instrument from Peru that is also played with the hands.
While Stokes admits that some days the ritual is overlooked, due to his busy schedule he always seems to find time to turn those musical gifts into projects across the Southside that continue to reflect the journey and struggle of the Black.
“He’s a walking individual with multiple powers,” said award-winning Chicago poet and Floating Museum co-director avery r. Young. “I see Sulyiman’s work, and I see leaps. And I know the magic happens.
That leap directed Stokes’ path to the Art Institute of Chicago where his works are currently on display as part of the Chicago art collective’s Floating Museum exhibition titled “A Lion for Every Home.” The exhibition opened on June 16 and will run until October 17.
The floating museum uses art to explore the relationships between community, architecture and public institutions and is co-directed by avery r young, Jeremiah Hulsebos-Spofford, Faheem Majeed and Andrew Schachman.
The idea behind the project was new. The Floating Museum and three curators invited ten photographers and paired them with ten local “hosts” made up of political leaders, activists and art supporters from the city. He would ask each host to choose one of three photographs from the art institutes collection and a copy of that work would be sent to the host for display in a place he designated as “house “.
Stokes was one of the photographers chosen to participate in the project and its designated host was Serge JC Pierre-Louis, founder and former president of the DuSable Heritage Association. They got in touch via Zoom during the height of the pandemic but eventually met in the setting of Pierre-Louis’ house for the portrait.
When asked what it was like to photograph Pierre-Louis, Stokes smiled. “Amazing guy,” he said, and later added, “You know, I really just wanted to shut up and listen. I mean, obviously, when people of that stature… when they talk, you want to listen because there is so much shared wisdom.
The portrait of Pierre-Louise by Stokes, featured in the exhibition, shows him seated quite majestically in an armchair, seemingly deep in thought while gazing into the distance.
“[His] condo, which is right by the lake in downtown…that’s where DuSable came in or something,” Stokes said. “It’s like some kind of divine setup…I felt like it was such an important thing and there was like this extreme amount of reverence that I wanted to capture, like the seriousness of the moment. I wanted the kind of honor that I felt to be there and to observe that… I also wanted it to be displayed, I wanted other people to experience it.
Once the session with Pierre-Louis was over, Stokes sent the organizers several shots to choose from and let them go from there.
In addition to the exhibition, Stokes led an in-person portrait workshop titled “Portrait Stories with Photographer Sulyiman Stokes” at the Art Institute on August 6. The workshop, co-sponsored by the Chicago Public Library, included an interactive gallery. featuring Stokes’ favorite works of art from the museum’s collection.
Attendees had the opportunity to spend time in the A Lion for Every House exhibit, learning about Stokes’ creative process as well as the history of the exhibit. The tour culminated with Stokes leading a storytelling and portrait photography session in the galleries.
For those wondering what future projects Stokes might have in the works, he revealed it will be musical in nature.
“It’s an entirely new project and it’s called ‘Underground Railroad to 79th’ because I grew up in Auburn-Gresham…a lot of it highlights the neighborhood I grew up in and its importance to me, and I want to impact this community. And it also pays homage to those who came before us and kind of connects those dots for us.
He added, “What I hope is to make certain facets of black history accessible to us… anyone who is willing to listen.”
You can follow Sulyiman Stokes on Instagram @sulyiman_.
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Dierdre Robinson is a writer and accountant in Chicago. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Michigan State University. She last wrote about multimedia visual artist Jewel Ham for the Weekly.