Chicago continues to rank among the most segregated cities in the United States, with Black and brown populations living across the south and west sides that lack the investment and resources of the white-dominated northern neighborhoods. Caused by more than a century’s worth of inequitable governance, redlining, and various forms of discrimination, this enduring racial separation has irrevocably shaped the city and its residents, impacting those who came to the area during the Great Migration and those who call it home still today. It’s often said that the history of Chicago is also the history of segregation.
This infamous legacy is an essential component of Yashua Klos’s evolution as an artist. “I’m from the city of Chicago, and Chicago’s urban planning was designed for segregation, to separate Black and white,” he shares with Colossal. “That segregation is baked into the ‘redlining’ housing ownership policies and the geography of the city.”
Now based in the Bronx, Klos frequently reflects on his hometown and brings the gridded structure of its streets into his works. A 2021 solo show at UTA Artist Space exhibited portraits bisected by angular blocks textured like wood, brick, and cinder, allowing fragments of the uniform roadways to emerge through facial features. “In art history, the grid is a kind of tool for optical democracy. There’s no visual hierarchy in a grid—you can enter any space at any time. So, I’m interested in that grid’s proposal of democracy and how that’s failed Black folks, especially where I’m from and how Chicago is constructed,” he says.
The collaged portraits evoke the ways identities are an amalgam of both genetics and surrounding influences. They mimic three-dimensional forms that surface from the flat plane of the paper, and Klos portrays the subjects as breaking free from constraint or relying on the structure for support. “I’m considering Black folks who are forming a defiant sense of self in order to survive in an often unjust environment. This is why these head forms often appear built of construction materials and suggest that they are sculptures or even monuments,” the artist writes, referencing the art historical use of statues and portraits to convey value and respect.
While Klos spent his upbringing in Chicago, his father’s family has ties to Detroit, particularly the car industry and Ford plant where many relatives worked. Like his portraiture, the artist’s woodblock prints of singular, upturned hands allow this personal history to converge with broader themes of familial love and political resilience. The appendages grasp botanicals native to Michigan and blocks floating nearby as they deny “work in order to hold flowers,” he says. “Here, I’ve found (an) opportunity to explore themes of nurturing, tenderness, generosity, and self-care.”
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