On view at SkyART (3026 E. 91st St.) from October 28 to December 17, 2022
By Jen Torwudzo-Stroh
To envision our future we must first understand our present. In 2022 we’re two years removed from the darkest days of the pandemic. It's been a hard road returning to the world and renegotiating the ways we interact with one another. Initially, there was an abundance of optimism as we threw open the doors and re-engaged with society, but as we all attempted to reassemble our lives, communities across the country also began to reckon with the economic and sociological effects of lockdown. Consequently the nation has seen an undeniable rise in crime and violence. News stories about guns, drugs, shoplifting, carjackings are everywhere and nearly impossible to miss. Tellingly, these crime-centric narratives tend to focus on urban centers with large Black and Brown populations like Chicago, making them synonymous with danger and violence. This type of storytelling isn’t new. It's an unoriginal ploy revisited time and time again by insincere politicians hoping their dog whistle will generate enthusiasm among frightened constituents.
But buried in the far-flung and over-embellished stories of violence is a kernel of truth. Undoubtedly, Chicago is a dynamic city; from the far north to the far southside, each culturally diverse neighborhood is defined by its own story and people. Equally true is the violence that has plagued some of the most marginalized communities within the city. These waves of wrongdoings represent a much greater problem. Economic divestment and lack of opportunities leave people without options. Without creativity or compassion from our elected leaders, the answer to the problems is often more jails and more cops. These policies only produce more fractured families and alienated communities who are left to pick up the pieces. The domino effects of these decisions touch us all, not just the people behind bars. Many people we serve in South Chicago and many of our staff are affected by the US carceral system. Many of them have been affected by violence in their community. Many have lost family members to drugs and mass incarceration. Those of us left behind are a community missing their fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters and friends.
The exhibition Can You See Me? Envisioning the future is a love letter to the youth we serve. Just like the city we call home, these youth are often defined by sweeping generalizations that fail to encompass even a fraction of their individual identities. It's our mission at SkyART to see our participants for who they are, beyond the statistics and damaging media narratives. And to tell them that we do see them in all of their beauty and nuances.
In order to envision the future we must also confront our past; and though ’m not a Chicago native, my family bears the scars of the same trauma. My older brother was incarcerated for 14 years. My imperfect, irresponsible but gregarious brother was in my life for 13 years… and then one day he wasn’t. He disappeared, existing only in letters, phone calls and the occasional visit. We couldn’t see him often, as he was locked up a few states over, tucked deep away in an isolated place where society stows the people it doesn’t want to acknowledge. The few times we were able to make the trip to see him I remember as a singular memory. Seven of us piled in a minivan, driving hours across state lines, then even farther to the correctional facility in the middle of nowhere. When we arrived we were searched, questioned and put through a metal detector just in case we got the idea of breaking him out. We laid ourselves bare for the state to sift through, a microcosm of the violation that I assumed my brother went through daily.
In order to be seen we must be willing to show. Vulnerability takes effort. With every program session at SkyART we ask our artists to come with open minds and a willingness to explore. Every day, the community we serve in South Chicago come to SkyART as they are, with their quirks and imperfections. Each young artist is a complex, layered individual with their own background, family history and story. With this individuality come their own traumas and stress and emotions they need to express. We’re all processing living in this world on an individual level as well as a societal one. We strive to create a space that allows them to do just that–a space that is affirming and free from judgment.
The work on view, as well as this essay, is a creative outlet for many things: trauma and pain, but also love and hope. In this exhibition, this public forum, we, our participants, our artists, our staff are showing ourselves, our innermost thoughts. We are not alone in our feelings, and we’re asking: Can you see me? Can you see us?
Looking back on my time visiting the prison, it was surreal to encounter my brother in such a closed-off environment. And yet, for those few precious hours in a dingy, gray waiting room, we did see him for who he was: a young, 23-year-old man, smiling and silly, cracking jokes and telling over-the-top stories of the dumb things he used to do that landed him there in the first place. He shared his drawings with us and poems he wrote. In isolation he found his own creative outlet for survival, for his sanity.
The evening when we left the prison, my brother’s girlfriend at the time told us about a spot on the way out where we could look back and see him one more time before we left. At just the right moment, hundreds of feet away, we turned to see him, and there he was again, waving from behind a bulletproof glass hallway behind a fence as a correctional officer escorted him back into the prison. And then he was gone again. Hidden, stashed away behind concrete walls and barbed wire fences. Alone with his thoughts and his art.
In order to envision the future we must be able to hope. Optimism is a practice; something we have to commit to everyday. We all have dreams for the artists we serve here at SkyART. The young artists who come into our studio every day are the future, and there is no shortage of talent and potential among them. Each one of them has so much to offer to each other, to their community and to the world. They start at SkyART as participants, but we want them to leave as artists, as creatives and with hope for a future that they can not only see, but have the imagination to shape in their image.
Basia Brown & Spanish Brown
Guillermo “Junior” Diaz & Crystal “Nikki” Diaz