By Devon VanHouten-Maldonado
The exhibition makes two main proposals: First, that young people deserve to be treated as kids, not criminals. In doing so we as a society must afford them the innocence and grace that all children deserve, especially when they make mistakes. Unfortunately, young Black and Brown people in poor communities are never afforded an innocent childhood. In Can you see me? we want to rescue a small part of this innocence by examining the topic of youth incarceration through the lens of freedom and innocence.
Second, we propose that the artwork by the incarcerated youth in SkyART’s Just US program and projects by other system-impacted youth in similar programs is just as meaningful, just as valuable and just as important as artworks by celebrated contemporary artists. Ebony G. Patterson, Cheryl Pope, Jim Duignan and Scheherazade Tillet share gallery space with youth who have been told by society that their lives are not important. All of the artists together create hope in the context of the criminalization and victimization of youth through a take on incarceration that isn’t illustrative but rather aspirational.
In the poem that inspired the exhibition's title, a Just-Us participant writes, “Can you save me from this damage that I can’t erase? I ain’t never felt this way before, until I put you in my arms. Can you see me?” The poem and the exhibition asks us to see young people affected by incarceration as children who have been failed by a system that all too often traumatizes Black and Brown youth who are already affected by an average of six Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), which negatively affect brian development and can cause increased addiction, criminality and mental health challenges. Across the three exhibitions, artworks explore the subtle and evident ways the juvenile justice system impacts Black and Brown youth whose lived experiences are often scaffolded by carcerality — from their early school experiences to their interactions with government.
Themes of healing, imagining, flying, ascending, freedom, play and innocence create nuanced and pluralistic portrayals of juvenile offenders. With a restorative justice lens, the exhibition aims to highlight youths’ humanity and voice, while exploring the impact of incarceration on our communities and questioning who has access to contemporary art spaces. The exhibition also aims to connect three communities on Chicago’s South and North sides across distinct spaces that are in dialogue with each other.
Through programs like SkyART’s Just-Us, Circles & Ciphers and A Long Walk Home, young artists affected by incarceration and violence create a space where they can collaborate, explore their identities and free their minds, if only for a short time. In the same way, Can you see me? aims to bring people together around art to have restorative and healing conversations, in order to imagine a future where all children are innocent, free and valued. We hope this exhibition will provide a small example of the world we can create together, where young people are elevated as experts in their own experiences alongside contemporary artists and practitioners; where people who may disagree can find common ground and where the justice system rights historic wrongs instead of perpetuating the trauma, oppression and systemic racism reflected in prisons and jails throughout the United States.
Can you see me? is curated by Devon VanHouten-Maldonado, Kasia Houlihan, Director of Weinberg/Newton Gallery and Rikki Byrd, Curatorial Advisor and Ph.D. Candidate in Northwestern University’s Department of African American Studies.