February 8, 2016

Shared Languages Workshop Braids Cultures Together

Across from the Garfield Green Line Station there are quite a few abandoned buildings. If you’ve taken the 55 through Washington Park, you know that this area looks run-down and pretty lifeless.

But recently a few empty spaces have been occupied, remodeled, and now shine their own light onto busy East Garfield Boulevard: a bookstore, a swanky coffee shop, and the wide-windowed Arts Incubator, all resisting the noisy grime with their own warm vibes.

Last Wednesday, I was lucky enough to participate in a Shared Language workshop at the Arts Incubator. According to the Incubator’s website, Shared Language “is a community classroom and exhibition that uses a broad definition of language to investigate modes of communication and the transfer of knowledge through experimental learning.” Oh boy, I thought as I made my way across Washington Park to get to the class. A UChicago program with a tagline straight out of a linguistics textbook.

More specifically, Shared Language is a community classroom initiative within the Arts and Public Life program sponsored by the University. All of the classes are held in a casual hangout setting at the Arts Incubator building located at 301 East Garfield Boulevard. University Director of Arts and Public Life Theaster Gates was instrumental in creating the Incubator, which opened in May 2013.

“Artists need space and resources to deepen their practices, share their wares, perform their chops, and communities like Washington Park benefit from new sources of creative energy. That’s why artists are such an essential element of a successful social space,” Gates said in an interview upon the space’s opening.

The Shared Language class I took at the Incubator was about braiding: braiding as cultural practice, as communicative medium, and, for me, as a wacky bonus to having a man-bun. I was hoping to pick up a little technique and some perspective, then maybe leave early. Instead, I learned firsthand about hair-straightening, hair-relaxing, and how important braids are to women in Mali. It’s one thing to read about a black woman’s experience with her hair; it’s another thing entirely to discuss it with a room full of people.

After reading a bit of bell hooks’s Straightening Our Hair, my class of eight waded into an indefinite discussion. Knowing little about the social implications of relaxed or naturally nappy hair, I had a lot to learn. A young girl sitting across from me was kind enough to explain her personal hair history; having relaxed and straightened it with treatments for years, she was beginning to experiment with her natural hair textures.

Many of the other students in my group were women training to earn beautician licenses in the state of Illinois. When we moved from the politics and culture of braiding to the practice portion of class, everyone crowded around to talk about how to twist hair, work complex braids, and deal with the unique needs of clients.

I struggled as my fingers tangled in some fake hair until our instructor’s mother, a Malian native, took pity and showed me what she called “the four-in-one.” A simple braid for the professional students in the room, this braid was a challenge for me. After a lot of frustrating weaving, however, I managed to make a passable fishtail braid. I left feeling proud that I had not only learned something but participated in another culture.

So if you want to really touch what you learn, take your readings off the page, and have some conversations that you can’t or won’t have in the classroom, I suggest you check out Shared Language’s website, as well as its upcoming exhibition and fort-building workshop. In between, there are a plethora of exciting conversations to be had, arts to be explored, and stories to be written. Fair warning: you might get tangled up in it like I did!

Shared Language: A Community Classroom continues until March 11, with a full list of events available at

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