Envisioning Justice shares the work of Chicago artists and communities as they visualize, actualize and re-imagine strategies, policies, and approaches in the service of a society that is just for all. This exhibition interrogates the failures of our criminal justice system while presenting plans toward self-empowerment and communal liberation.
“Envisioning Justice,” the exhibition, opens August 6 and runs through Oct. 12 at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Sullivan Galleries, 33 S. State Street. Created by Illinois Humanities, the free exhibition and related public programming features works by professional and community artists from neighborhoods including Rogers Park, Bronzeville, Little Village, Back of the Yards, and North Lawndale among others in Chicago. The gallery is open to the public Tuesdays through Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The exhibition is part of Illinois Humanities’ larger Envisioning Justice initiative, designed to engage diverse Chicagoans in imagining a system that fosters justice, accountability, safety, support, and restoration for all people affected by the criminal justice system. During the past two years, the initiative has cultivated and strengthened a network of community organizations that have held community conversations, art education classes, and skill-sharing sessions about incarceration and its impact on local communities. These activities highlighted the voices of youth and community residents impacted by incarceration; some of these are reflected in the exhibition.
Works from seven commissioned artists: Dorothy Burge, (who has worked within the Bronzeville community to create quilts speaking out against police brutality, life sentences without parole and wrongful convictions); Adela Goldbard (working with Little Village community residents to create a multimedia installation consisting of sculpture and indigenous history); Jim Duignan (creating a publication and installation on visual art and literary content from artists and organizations that work with incarcerated people); Sonja Henderson (working with North Lawndale residents to create a justice-themed multimedia structure incorporating textiles); Nicole Marroquin, (in partnership with Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, through the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and Lumpen Radio, creating audio recordings and ceramic amplifiers made by system-involved young people); Kirsten Leenaars, (creating a movement and performance video of youth leaders from Circles & Ciphers in Rogers Park); and Project Fielding, a collective of female-identified and nonbinary builders (working within Back of the Yards to create“Resistance Architecture” structures).
The Envisioning Justice exhibition, curated by visual artist and independent curator Alexandria Eregbu, with support from assistant curator Jameson Paige and curatorial consultant Danny Orendorff, features diverse media and art forms, including fiber-based works and textiles, audio, sculpture, performance video, animation, a “Resistance Architecture” structure, and community and activist ephemera such as posters and drawings. Contributors include seven artists commissioned by Illinois Humanities, as well as youth and adults who have been participating in Envisioning Justice programming. The exhibition also features borrowed works of art with criminal justice themes from local and nationally-known artists such as SAIC faculty member Maria Gaspar, Tonika Johnson, Prison + Neighborhoods Art Project, and Gabriel Villa, who is producing an original site-specific mural.
“The Envisioning Justice exhibition presents a powerful composite of viewpoints and experiences from Chicago and beyond,” said Gabrielle Lyon, executive director of Illinois Humanities. “This exhibition not only illustrates in intimate and personal terms the injurious effects of mass incarceration and the criminal justice system on local communities, it calls on all of us to imagine other possibilities.”
Although violent and property crimes in the U.S. have declined by nearly half since a peak in 1991, the prison population has climbed for two decades, according to research by FBI Uniform Crime Reports and The Sentencing Project. In the 1970s the total prison population was about 200,000 people; in 2017 the population was 1.5 million. Seventy-five percent of people in jail, whether they are serving sentences or are being held before trial, are behind bars for nonviolent traffic, property, drug, or public order offenses, according to The Sentencing Project.
Chicagoans who have been incarcerated live in roughly 851 of Chicago’s 21,000 city blocks and are concentrated in just 13 of Chicago’s 77 Community Areas. These areas, on the West and South sides of Chicago, are primarily comprised of low-income African-American and Latinx residents, according to Dan Cooper, research director at the Metropolitan Planning Council and co-creator of Chicago’s Million Dollar Blocks project (examines incarceration trends in Chicago).
“The phenomenon of mass incarceration is concentrated economically, racially, and profoundly geographically, and so are its consequences,” Cooper said. “Its effects are felt by all the residents of communities with high-incarceration rates. These communities experience more health, economic, education, emotional, and family traumas because of it.”
“We hope the exhibition will drive conversations about how to improve our criminal justice system and create a more equitable society,” Lyon said. “One thing the Envisioning Justice initiative has taught us is that equity and justice look different depending on what community you live in. We need more diverse, more complex, and more locally-informed solutions.”
Complementing the exhibition is a series of free public programs at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Sullivan Galleries that include:
● Grand opening and public reception on Saturday, Aug. 17, 2 to 5 p.m.
● Activation Day on Saturday, Sept. 7, 10 a.m. to 6 pm: workshops on re-entry simulation, prison abolition movement, and de-escalating techniques to avoid police intervention; and youth performances
● Five Odyssey Project Envisioning Workshops that include facilitated small group discussions and artmaking activities (Wednesdays: Aug. 21, Aug. 28 from 6-8pm; Saturdays: Aug. 24, Sept. 14, Sept. 28 from 2-4pm)