After being postponed for almost six months, due to COVID, WOMANISH finally opened its doors to the public on Thursday, September 3rd. Created by sisters Danyelle and Dionna Gray, WOMANISH explores the identity of women and gender non-conforming people and a movement that creates progressive visual and physical experiences. With exhibits and activations highlighting local, national, and international artists’ work, WOMANISH represents womanhood from various perspectives.
Racquel Coral (RC): What was the inspiration behind WOMANISH?
Dionna: We’ve always had a passion for empowering women in everything that we do. At first, we had an app, and we were trying to figure out how to grow it. After doing a couple of smaller events, we noticed that the real impact was in person. So Danyelle suggested that we do an experiential event.
Danyelle: We were thinking about what could be the most impactful or what’s the biggest thing we could do or how big we could go. With me being in marketing and events, I looked at what was trending and saw that experiential was impactful because it takes you beyond a regular event. So I thought that it would be empowering if we created an experiential exhibit, but looking at it now, it’s more than what we dreamed. And even though it’s bigger than what we planned, a lot of things just fell into our lap.
RC: What was the process like getting to this point?
Dionna: When we initially came up with the idea, we could only think of two other experiential exhibits: the Museum of Ice Cream and 29 Rooms. In thinking about how they did it, we saw that they had influencers who promoted them and a venue. We set out to search for a venue that would do a percentage because we didn’t have the money upfront and influencers who would post on our behalf in exchange for an invitation to the launch. Once we confirmed our influencers, Danyelle found our creative director, Emily Dahlquist, who took our concept and ran with it. She’s done this before for other artists, so she already had the experience that we were looking for.
RC: So let’s talk COVD. You were initially scheduled to open March 24th, and because of the shutdown, you had to cancel the opening. How did you work through that obstacle, and what was the road like finally getting to this point?
Danyelle: We had to make an executive decision early on. In the second week of March, we figured that we could push through, but everyone else’s safety was important, so we decided to put it on hold. Our landlord didn’t have a problem, so we just continued to build while we were waiting because we felt that eventually, we would be able to open. And when Illinois entered into phase four, we waited a month or two to make sure we didn’t go back to phase three, and now we’re here.
We also did a lot of COVID safety guidelines. We’re grateful that our space for the Womanish Exhibit is 40,000 square feet, so we make sure that it feels very spacious and that people don’t feel like they’re on top of each other.
Dionna: We also significantly reduced the number of people allowed to be in here, so that everyone can be socially distant.
Danyelle: We do temperature checks and ensure that our staff is equipped with PPE and hand sanitizer. And we make sure that the space has been adequately sanitized. So we have 15 minutes breaks in between each group for our staff to wipe everything down.
Dionna: That journey was crazy, though. There’s so much overhead cost that went into this, we didn’t know if we were going to make it. Especially since we put so much into it since January of last year.
Danyelle: We would always joke that out of all the things to plan for, a pandemic wasn’t one of them. So our hearts dropped. But God saw us through. We’re very faith-oriented, and He made a way out of no .
RC: So how do you use the different exhibits to enforce women empowerment?
Danyelle: When you come in, you start your journey in the “Delish” diner based on the 1950s Diner in the “We can do it” era. It’s the start of the sexual revolution for women. The artist did the 1950s themed mural, and we have very inclusive “We can do it” posters because we want to include all women.
Dionna: I think my favorite installation is “Publish.” We have a staircase that wraps around and has powerful quotes from powerful women such as Michelle Obama, Beyonce, and Shirley Chisolm. They don’t specifically talk about women, but they are very empowering.
RC: How do you anticipate the turnout being?
Dionna: We sold out on our first day, so that’s exciting. I think people now more than ever need spaces to come to that are safe and make you feel like you’re away from everything. And once you walk into this space, you’ll immediately forget about all that is happening outside. We do still require masks, but I feel like people just need an escape.
Danyelle: I was talking to another business nearby, and they expressed how happy they were that we are here to get people back to the Loop and just out again. We know that it’s not going to be immediate, but we think that once people see this exhibit, they’re going to want to get out. And you need something inviting to get you out of the house and start adjusting to the new normal. So you can come here, be COVID compliant, and still have a great time.
I tell my staff that I want people to feel like they are in Disney World here. I want them to have a fun and welcoming, and inclusive experience. And we’re giving that.
RC: What do you foresee the impact of Womanish being?
Dionna: Recently, there was a Black woman who commended us, saying, “This is so dope. A win for you is a win for us.” That touched me because we are not just doing this for us. We’re doing this for other people so show them that they can also do it. We didn’t come from millionaires. We just had this dream and figured it out. So for us winning, is a win for not only women but Black women.
RC: What’s one thing you would like for attendees to keep in mind as they go through the Womanish exhibit?
Danyelle: We hope Womanish inspires people to go after their dreams and that it provokes conversation on social and political topics that affect women. Especially in this era. Women need support, we’re fighting for different issues, and hopefully, it inspires you to go out and do something.
The five-floor WOMANISH exhibit is currently taking place until October 4th at 114 South State Street. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit https://wearewomanish.com.
Contributing Writer, Racquel Coral is a lifestyle writer based in Chicago. Find her on social media @withloveracquel.