Identity

This Artist Is Rewriting the Narrative of a Segregated Chicago

Tonika Johnson opens up about her acclaimed Folded Map Project, growing up in Chicago, and her plans for 2020.

by Samantha Cabrera Friend
Nov 18 2019, 3:17pm

Tonika Johnson poses beside a wall of Indigenous African art and photos in her home.

This article appears in VICE Magazine's 2019 Profiles Issue. This edition looks to the future by zeroing in on the underrecognized writers, scientists, musicians, critics, and more that will shape our world next year. They are "the Other 2020" to watch. Click HERE to subscribe to the print edition.

More than 2.7 million people call Chicago, Illinois, home. But in one of the most segregated cities in America, what home means to the inhabitants of Chicago’s North and South sides is intensely different.

Tonika Johnson, a photographer, activist, and mother, is known for her visual explorations of Englewood, the South Side neighborhood where she grew up. In 2017, she was named a Chicagoan of the Year by Chicago magazine for her photography depicting daily life in Englewood, offering a counterimage to the media’s version of the neighborhood as a place of poverty, tragedy, and crime.

That same year, Johnson began photographing a project that has her grappling with what home looks like for the rest of the city: The Folded Map Project, an ongoing exploration of modern segregation, depicts corresponding addresses on the North and South Sides of Chicago. Johnson told me she began by finding what she calls “map twins” in an effort to “identify and compare what present-day inequity and segregation looks like while also bringing together people on same blocks but in different segregated neighborhoods to have a conversation.”

Johnson grew up in the Englewood home that her grandmother purchased after moving to the city from East St. Louis, Illinois, in 1965, having worked hard for seven years to save for it. “My childhood was wonderful,” Johnson recalled when we met at her home in Englewood in October. “I thought my neighborhood was the most ideal place to be until I started to go outside and encountered people who asked me questions like, ‘Oh is there a lot of shootings on your block?’ So, it just really kind of ruptured the childhood reality that I had.” Throughout high school, she began to notice the sum of differences between her neighborhood and those located on the North Side, observations that sparked the Folded Map Project, in part an attempt at understanding why her neighborhood became that way.

“Chicago is not the only city that’s impacted by structural, systemic discrimination and racism,” Johnson said. “Even though we have put laws and policies in place to dismantle segregation, it is something that has seeped into our daily lives, our social networks, that allows hatred and stereotypes to get perpetuated.”

The Folded Map Project has been exhibited widely since she began work on it, and Johnson was awarded the Field Foundation’s Leaders for a New Chicago designation this year. Johnson plans to identify more “map twins” in 2020 and is developing two projects expanding on that work, in which she’ll document African American teenagers’ journey to feel like they belong in the city and collect Chicagoans stories about being told to avoid the South Side.

“I wanted the Folded Map to serve as an opportunity for people to see the result of segregation,” she said. “[Chicago] is also the place that has the greatest opportunity to get it right, to be an example of how you can dismantle this deeply embedded historic segregation.”

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A gallery piece from a recent exhibition of Johnson’s Folded Map Project shows 6900 North Ashland Avenue.
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Johnson poses in the living room with her children, Nyjah and Khayyel.
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Johnson rests on the porch of her Englewood home.
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Johnson has a deep archive of unpublished work. BoysInWater—2015, one of Johnson’s lesser-known photographs, depicts a group of boys playing in the water at Foster Park, on Chicago’s South Side.
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Hotchips—2011, another image from the photographer’s archive, shows Johnson’s daughter and a friend eating hot chips while attending summer camp at Foster Park.
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Johnson holds a copy of Story of Englewood. The book tells the early history of Englewood, when white settlers were prominent. Few texts have been published after it to update the history of Englewood to today, but Johnson’s work continues to fill in this missing and overlooked history.
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A gallery piece from a recent exhibition of Johnson’s Folded Map Project shows 6900 South Ashland Avenue—6900 North Ashland Avenue’s South Side counterpart.
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The Chicago skyline. Johnson has said she wants the "Folded Map Project to serve as an opportunity for people to see the result of segregation. [Chicago] is also the place that has the greatest opportunity to get it right, to be an example of how you can dismantle this deeply embedded historic segregation."
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