Esmaa Mohamoud: Finding billboards

Nicky Ni, CHICAGO READER, April 15, 2023

Chicago Reader


OVERRIDE” has been a public art program of EXPO Chicago since 2016, extending the reach of the art fair beyond Navy Pier’s Festival Hall to different locales of the city.


“Override,” literally, is an industry term that indicates the continuation of an outdoor advertising program beyond the contracted period. If offered, an override has no additional cost. Such is our billboard project. Usually starting before the extravagant EXPO weekend, this collaboration with the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) would override for another week or two after the conclusion of the fair. This year, the public project runs from April 3–23, featuring artworks by ten artists—five local and five represented by EXPO participating exhibitors—on digital billboards and information panels across Chicago. 


“OVERRIDE” has received positive feedback since its conception, according to Kate Sierzputowski, director of programming of EXPO Chicago. As a fan of looking for art outside of its conventional confines, I find it aspiring to imagine artworks up high, against the night sky and the twinkling Chicago skyline. However, what’s less evident about this billboard art project is that the artworks are not the sole temporary residents of those expensive LED screens. They share screen time with other advertisers and city announcements, which, like a slideshow, appear in a predetermined order; within the allocated time slot for  “OVERRIDE,” the artworks shuffle among themselves. To see everything in full requires some luck and patience. 


As contemporary advertising evolves and seeks new blank spaces in our lives to fill with information, billboards, within the city at least, occupy only a small portion of the images that we encounter on a daily basis. This makes me wonder: Who, then, is the beholder of these artworks? When we’re in motion (as passengers in a CTA train car or in a rideshare) and not actively doing anything, we are more than likely looking at our phones. In my head, it only seems logical that these billboards are visible to the absent-minded drivers and those like me who have too much motion sickness to scroll on a phone in a moving vehicle. 


Similarly, the photo-surrealistic endeavor of If they come for me in the morning (2022), by Ethiopia-born artist Aïda Muluneh, plays hide-and-seek with the viewer. Two female subjects wearing face paint that disguises like a mask peep their heads out of a sea of red foliage. Muluneh’s iconic style is so distinct that the viewer can easily associate the work on the billboard with the artist’s other pieces from the same public art series, This is where I am, which are currently on view on numerous bus shelters across Chicago. 


Not including any text or information on the artist or the artwork was a conscious decision made by the EXPO team, which I completely understood and abided by. Overlaying text onto the artworks would only frame them as posters. This constraint urges the artworks to be more shocking and self-explanatory, highlighting text-based artworks as competitive candidates. In the past, “OVERRIDE” wittily featured text-based images that made good use of the site-specificity of billboards, its artificiality that disrupts the sky. I am the Sky by Chicago artist Paul Heyer for “OVERRIDE” 2018 humorously writes the titular phrase on a lightly watercolored sky. Just Us made by Sanford Biggers for the 2016 iteration stylized its typography as whimsical as the clouds. This year, Infinite Gratitude, by Chicago-based multidisciplinary artist Eddie Santana White, aka Edo, camouflages the word “Gratitude” with dazzling colors. Albeit sweet, a full dosage of whole-hearted positivity might not work for the skeptics and the cynics. Vertical artworks are displayed on the city information panels in the central business district. They are much more accessible for people like me who rely on public transit to get around.


Successful selections for this kind of public art projects are those that are conscious of their context and are artistically critical of it. My absolute favorite is the 3D-animation GIFs from the Trophies (2020) series by Chicago artist Kristin McWharter. Snarky, deadpan funny, almost pathetically self aware.


Effortlessly utilizing the precious ten-second screen time, Really Great (2020) conjures what’s akin to a customizable pageant trophy coming to life. The shiny trophy figure looks nothing like a goddess of beauty. Rather, she’s seen in a swimming suit struggling to find her balance on top of the check ring that sits above a glittering holographic column. The plate on the trophy base reads, “Really Great, Really.” But the lady on top thinks otherwise; whether she’s trying to stand straight or to jump, I think she’s shouting “Not That Great!” It’s a piece of work that stops the passersby with a blow of Millennial nonchalance; it pokes fun, cracks a smile, and disappears before one can see it again.

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