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'Such a nice light': Peoria Guild of Black Artists presents first block party this weekend

Alexander MArtin Morgan Mullen GOBA
Hannah Alani
Alexander Martin (left) and Morgan Mullen are the co-founders of the Peoria Guild of Black Artists.

The following is a transcript of a WCBU piece that aired during All Things Peoria on Friday, Oct. 29. The interview was edited for length and clarity.

The Peoria Guild of Black Artists is throwing a Block Party at the East Bluff Community Center this weekend.

The party will be from noon-6 p.m. in the center's parking lot, 512 E. Kansas St. Learn more on Facebook.

WCBU's Hannah Alani spoke with Guild founders Morgan Mullen and Alexander Martin about the event, as well as the group's ongoing impact in Peoria.

Morgan Mullen: Coming from outside of Chicago we used to have block parties pretty regularly, like annual events. And I realized when I moved to Peoria, we didn't have any block parties. So I wanted to bring a block party out. We're gonna have a DJ, and pumpkin decorating, mask decorating. There's a bounce house …obstacle course, that was donated. The ‘Trunk or Treat’ is coming as a stop as well. The Zoomobile.

Alexander Martin: Yeah, we're doing a group mural as well. The canvas will hang in the East bluff Community Center after the event.

Morgan Mullen: Drag story hour is happening as well, too, by Alex. We’re doing a coat giveaway, the coats were given from the Neighborhood House.

Alexander Martin: A lot of the stuff we've done, we've done a lot of like art events, performances and stuff. But it's been being invited by other spaces. And like, we're collaborating with East Bluff Community Center for this one. But this is something Morgan wanted to do. And that our Guild was interested in. So it's like, doing something from the ground up, which is really nice. … We want to have a lot of block parties in the future, but they can all look different.

Hannah Alani: Why did you feel like this is something that's really special and important for your Guild to be taking on and doing for the community?

Morgan Mullen: I think it's just something about a block party that is so different from any other event. Coming from Chicago, we had the Bud Billiken Parade and like, that's just something historic, and like, historically, Black. A lot of people, I realize here, have never heard of the Bud Billiken Parade, even though it something that happens every year. And so it's just like, you know, at those times, you're going to see your neighbors this day, this day for this thing, and it's just nice to know your neighbors and to meet them and see what they have going on, anything new. Without it being, ‘Oh, it’s been a big storm, a tree fell!’ Which we did up too, by Chicago. So it's just nice to meet with people for positive reasons, and not like, a meeting for something sad. So. I think everybody needed that, especially after the pandemic. And that was why it was so important for me to squeeze one in for the 2021 year.

Alexander Martin: As an organization, we want to show the importance of the arts. This thing is being organized by artists and creatives. We're going to be there doing projects with the people who visit, but then also setting up, talking about our work. There will be artists selling things. And so it's showing within the Black community, showing the importance of the arts and how important they are to facilitating public engagement.

Hannah Alani: Can you both go over your personal histories, how you found yourself in Peoria, and what kind of art you do?

Morgan Mullen: I came to Peoria in 2010 to go to Bradley University. I'm from Calumet City, Illinois, so just a south suburb of Chicago. And I've been here ever since. … Studying graphic design here at Bradley, I graduated as a graphic designer. And then as I started working in Peoria, I now work in public health, working with COVID-19 testing and vaccinations as well as STI prevention services and harm reduction services.

Alexander Martin: I moved here in 2014, I moved to Peoria from West Virginia, and moved here for graduate school. Also at Bradley, where I got my Master's in Fine Art, graduated in 2017. And then I've been doing art and performance in Peoria since then. I also work in public health at Central Illinois Friends.

Hannah Alani: Tell me about the Guild and the history of The Guild.

Alexander Martin: We started in summer of 2020. It was right after the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. We were a group of people that were already hanging out with each other on and off. We were tired of there not being a lot of spaces for Black artists. And the only time we were ever showing together was like, during Black History Month, or like, an LGBTQ+ show. Like that was the only time we ever saw each other's work together. And so we decided to get together just to sort of commiserate, make space. And we were just realizing that we wanted to strike while the iron was hot. A lot of people, because of quarantine, were at home and listening. They were learning to things that maybe they didn't know about before. They were listening to voices they hadn't listened to before. And we're like, ‘This is the time.’ And so we got together, started meeting, and then we took a photo. And from that photo that we posted, everything sort of took off.

Morgan Mullen: Now I think we've grown over 20 [members]. And they all can't regularly make the meetings, but we've gotten poets, actors, writers, musicians, digital artists, muralists …

Alexander Martin: Supporters of the arts. ... Videographers, filmmakers. We’ve made such a nice space. We have such a nice light amongst our group that like, we work to protect that. And protect each other. So like, turn down things that don't agree with that, or turned down things that aren't safe for all of our members, only safe for some of them. And so it's been nice to sort of be there, to support each other when faced with things like that, so it's less easy for folks to take advantage of us individually.

Hannah Alani: Was that something that happened before the Guild was formed?

Alexander Martin: Yeah, a lot of Black voices are taken advantage of. Being asked to show work for exposure, or like, being reached out for like, ‘Hey, we need to show some people. It's February, like we need to show some Black artists.’

Morgan Mullen: When [they] say, ‘It's February!’ in the middle of January … ‘Hurry up!’

Alexander Martin: Yeah it’s like, ‘Oh, we need some work right now!’ And it's like, just sort of being like the diversity hire, so to speak. The tagline. And just being overlooked, or not really listened to. … I’m Black and trans. And in some Black spaces, it's like, I don't always feel the most welcome just because of other things. And so it’s being, just turned away or looked over or taken advantage of in multiple situations. … I’ve been paid not well for pieces that take a lot of work.

…And so now, we all protect each other. Like our first meeting was a bunch of commiserating about our experiences with the arts community as a whole. And it's really easy to sort of gaslight-proof yourself when you have 20 other people who are like, ‘Oh, my God, the same thing happened to me three times!’ You're like, ‘Oh, I'm not crazy.’

Morgan Mullen: Just not being treated well in general, like as a person. They think just because like, they can treat you any kind of way, you're not gonna say anything to anybody else about your experience.

Alexander Martin: Because I have worked a job that has been a little bit more public-facing, folks just assuming that like, ‘Oh, well, you do this kind of thing. So let's hear your voice.’ Like, I'm not the voice for a whole community. It's in our statement: ‘None of us are a monolith.’

…This isn’t just personally for me, but the community as a whole. The exhibition we put on before we were a Guild. There was a [Black] family that came by and saw Morgan working on some artwork. And so Morgan invited them to the exhibition. The night of, they didn’t come in. Morgan talked to them a few weeks later. … It was a predominately white space. … A lot of these spaces are unintentionally exclusive of people. It’s a lot of white spaces and upper middle class folks going in. A lot of other groups feel like they don’t belong. … We’ve seen people not come to shows because they’re afraid to.  

Hannah Alani: Those were not artists, they were guests?

Morgan Mullen: Members of the community that were in the neighborhood. … They came, but they didn’t come in.  

Alexander Martin: And hearing folks in, like, nonprofit organizations be like, ‘Well how can I reach those people?’… I’m like, ‘What do you mean when you say those people?’ … They ‘other’ it. How did you invite them? Did you welcome them?

Morgan Mullen: Inviting and welcoming are two different things.

Hannah Alani: Is there anything the Peoria community can do? Anything our listeners who are listening to this in earnest and are reflecting … things that people can do to be better listeners, to be better allies?

Morgan Mullen: There are a lot of different ways to keep supporting. Buying Black from different businesses, especially this holiday season. Especially from artists, supporting their artwork.

Alexander Martin: And keeping that same energy of not assuming you know. Like, that is one of the biggest changes I still see is, I think other members of the Guild feel emboldened to share our experiences. Like, we've kept quiet for so long. And we're still polite, like, I always make the joke, ‘I'm palatable, because of niceness.’ And so I can get away with saying a lot of things because I'm nice. But I feel safer to say those things now than ever before, because people are listening. … And I think keeping that same energy. Don't just share on Facebook, don't just like, get a bumper sticker. Unless it comes from a Black business! But like, listen and learn. Because everybody does that. We listen and learn about things every day, for things that are outside of our own community. So it's like, everybody should do the same thing.

For more information on the Peoria Guild of Black Artists, visit the group's website.

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