Block Museum Student Associate Bobby Yalam’s parents, avid fans of the city’s architectural boat tour, are in for a big surprise at their next visit, he said: a massive installation of works by photographer Leonard Suryajaya now lines the Chicago Riverwalk as part of the city’s Public Art programming.
Yalam and 13 of his Northwestern University peers in The Block’s Student Associate program are among the subjects featured in the monumental artwork, which includes The Block Museum’s collaborative group portrait Perennial Blossom (2021)
Yalam spoke Wednesday, October 18 at a City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) unveiling event for Suryajya’s installation, Kin Link. The five larger-than-life banners present a vision of an immigrant’s experience of the city through a queer lens, offering and creating space for differing patterns and identities to coexist. The installation considers the overlapping of family with kinship, and the knotty relationship between home and diaspora.
Leonard Suryajay’s Kin Link – installed on the South Bank of Chicago river
Suryajaya’s relationship with The Block began in 2020 when the museum’s 2020-21 Student Associate cohort proposed the artist’s photograph Quarantine Blues for the museum collection. Following the piece’s acquisition, the artist and student cohort began a dialogue about identity and pandemic isolation, culminating in the artist’s offer to create a new work. That work became Perennial Blossom, a vivid, floral ensemble portrait featuring The Block Student Associates and the artist’s sister and mother.
Student Associates Bobby Yalam (Comparative Literature and Economics ’24) and Nozizwe Msipa (Communication & Fim ’24) both gave public remarks during the Kin Link opening event, reflecting on the resonance of their work with Suryajaya.
“Preparing for the Perennial Blossom photoshoot was my first time working so closely with a professional artist,” Yalam said. “I found myself flexing my creativity in exciting new ways, while also tuning into my identity in a process unlike any I’d tried before.”
Msipa spoke to Suryjaya’s meticulous attention to detail and care for his subjects. She recalled the collective anxiety of the Student Associates on the day of the photoshoot and likened the artist to “a fearless captain on a massive ship- there were so many moving parts.”
“Through his work, one can appreciate that people and objects are more than one thing- to use myself as an example, through my role in Perennial Blossom I hope you can see I’m a student, an international student from Zimbabwe, far from home but always bringing a piece of it with me.”
Perennial Blossom is the Eastern-most banner of the Kin Link installation
The unveiling celebration included a series of live music and dance performances, beginning with a DJ set by TRQPiTECA, a Chicago-based artist duo comprised of Natalie Murillo (La Spacer) and Jacquelyn Carmen Guerrero (Cqqchifruit) that focuses on uniting diverse communities through art and dance music. Following the duo’s lively musical intro came performances by Friends of the Gamelan, a Chicago-based group specializing in the traditional ensemble music of Indonesia’s Javanese people, and dancers from Chicago’s Mandala Arts, an organization specializing in South Asian performing arts traditions.
Reflecting on his now ten years in Chicago, Suryajaya spoke to his gratitude to be able to make art and share it with friends, community, and the city. “If I can make people think and feel connected with their family, themselves, their friends, and where they come from, I truly believe it’ll be better for all of us,”
“The more that I make art, I truly see my job really is to dream big, keep dreaming, and back it up with discipline and back it up with the hope that it’s all for progress,” he said.
Kin Link will remain on public exhibition until 2025 as part of the Riverwalk banner exhibition, which has previously featured work by Candida Alvarez (2017-19), Ebony G. Patterson (2019-21), and Andrea Carlson (2021-23).