They started a podcast, they built a brand, and now they’ve created an experience. Powerhouse sisters Dionna and Danyelle Gray are the dynamic duo behind WOMANish—an experiential gallery that’s more than just an event, it’s a movement.
It might seem crazy to debut an interactive event and gallery space in the middle of a pandemic and even more so in the middle of downtown Chicago. Luckily for the Gray sisters, who finish each other’s sentences, they know just what to do with crazy. How else could these two, along with their team, take an abandoned five-story retail space and turn it into a larger-than-life exhibition celebrating what makes us unique?
“Our creative director Emily Dahlquist found the space,” says Danyelle during the opening week of WOMANish. “This place used to be an Ulta that was abandoned for about four years and when we came in we had to do absolutely everything. There was some structure to the space, but from the panels to the colors and all the installations, we built all of it.”
Walking through downtown Chicago feels different. On the day I visited WOMANish there was a Black Lives Matter demonstration winding through downtown and five police vehicles on the median in front of the event space. Inside, the tension melted away—a sign at the entrance reminding visitors that, “The experience here represents an identifying factor of womanhood from various perspectives.”
Dionna and Danyelle started WOMANish as a pop-up focused on bringing women’s experiences to the forefront. The goal was to create a safe space, and to bring together gender-nonconforming people to start a conversation around identity and lived experiences. Their launch at the start of the year brought together fifteen artists, each sharing their “ish” and their approach to art-making. That event has grown into a series of panel discussions where speakers and attendees could share their intimate thoughts and experiences with one another.
“I think we were getting ready together and Danyelle popped her head around the corner and said, ‘We should do an experiential event,’ and it just clicked,” says Dionna. “We did a call for artists and the response was just incredible. We had an idea of what we wanted but ultimately each room is curated and designed by the artists and they just absolutely killed it.”
Like a glittery disco wonderland, each of WOMANish’s rooms is more colorful than the last. A giant spiral staircase leads guests through each floor and navigating each curated space feels like following the yellow brick road to Oz—if that yellow brick road were lined with neon lights and work by artists like Nina Palomba, Claudia Chanhoi, Tyler Clark and Jas Petersen.
From “CENSOREDish” where viewers can flirt with the idea of censorship to “CHILDish” that invites us to embrace our inner child, each new room presents an idea and challenges how it’s perceived. Like a lot of experiential events, this one encourages photos and the WOMANish team are quick to offer assistance when it comes to capturing the moment. Touch and play are encouraged and there’s even an interactive beauty salon on the fourth floor where guests can try on wigs and reflect on self-care. In the basement, the WOMANish dream team turned the space into a light installation and a nonstop dance party.
Right now, we could all use a little inspiration. When there’s so much uncertainty to our days, there’s comfort in community, in creativity, and in the connections we make. This interactive safe space serves as a welcome reminder that we are stronger together and stronger still when we take the time to celebrate what makes us unique.
Through October 22. Tickets from $35 for individuals and $60 for group packages. Ages two and under are free. Guests aged four and over are required to bring and wear their own mask.