Art is for our sake. Will a new exhibit help change our thinking about the criminal justice system?

The School of the Art Institute of Chicago opens its “Envisioning Justice” exhibit.


By Frederick H. Lowe


Dorothy Burge makes quilts, but they are not the multi-colored square creations you spread on your bed that look pretty and keep you warm at night.

Burge makes quilts in the shape of black men, particularly of those who have been wrongfully convicted, those who have been victims of police violence and those who have been murdered by police.

Hanging from the seventh-floor ceiling of the Sullivan Galleries of the School of the Art Institute at 33 South State Street in downtown Chicago is an 8-foot tall quilt of Eric Blackmon, who is dressed in a sweater and trousers.

An 8-foot tall quilt made in the human form of artist Eric Blackmon

He is holding a sketchpad in his left hand. His right hand is in his pocket. He has a smile on his face, which belies the trauma he has experienced at the hands of the police and the so-called criminal justice system. Blackmon, an artist, spent 15 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, Burge explains.

Next to Blackmon’s quilt, also hanging from the ceiling, is a much smaller quilt in the shape of Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old African American teenager.

McDonald was murdered by Chicago Police officer Jason Van Dyke, who is now in prison.

“I placed holes in the quilt to show the places where Laquan was shot,” Burge said. Van Dyke shot McDonald, who was carrying a 3½ -inch pen knife, 16 times, killing him.

Burge describes her work as memorials to the victims of police violence.

She also explained that black women made quilts as warning signs to escaped slaves as part of the Underground Railroad.

Black women sewed secret codes into the quilts. They hung the quilts outside to warn fugitive slaves of the dangerous presence of slave patrols or slave police.

Burge is one of seven Chicago-based artists whose works are being displayed as part of an exhibit titled “Envisioning Justice,” which  illustrates through art the failure of the criminal justice system.

The exhibit challenges accepted policies of mass incarceration made popular by former President Bill Clinton, wholeheartedly embraced by most members of the Congressional Black Caucus and generally accepted with little to no critical thought by the tax-paying public.

“We hope this exhibition will drive conversations about how to improve our criminal justice system and create a more equitable society,” said Gabrielle Lyon, executive director of Illinois Humanities. “One thing the Envisioning Justice Initiative has taught us is that equity and justice look different depending upon what community you live in. We need more diverse, more complex, and more locally informed solutions.”

The exhibit’s goal is to encourage people to rethink the criminal justice system and how it affects them personally, their neighbors and their neighborhood. This thinking would include understanding the traumatic effects it has on individuals sent to prison and the effect it has on their neighborhood after the former inmate is released.

Alexandria Eregbu, the event curator and visual artist, took a group of journalists on a tour of the exhibition space. It boasts large floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking State Street. The exhibition area has been divided into different spaces to display various pieces of art.

One of the spaces includes the names of men tortured into confessing to crimes they didn’t commit by former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and his men.

The names of the torture victims are written in white block letters on black banners. Also printed on the banners are the dates when police tortured the men.

The free exhibition opened August 6 and runs through October 12.

The exhibit joins the mission and efforts of organizations like the Innocence Project, which works to free wrongfully convicted men and women. In 2018, the Innocence Project, which is based in New York City, reported that it freed a record nine wrongfully convicted men from prison.

Organizations like the Innocence Project, which has affiliates nationwide, has been aided by cellphone videos which people carry, often recording police misconduct.

Despite these passionate efforts, the U.S. prison population has soared. In the 1970s, the U.S. prison population was 200,000. In 2017, the U.S. prison population was 1.5 million. The Sentencing Project recently reported that there are 2.2 million people housed in the nation’s prisons and jails.

“Seventy percent of people in jail, whether they are serving sentences or being held before trial, are behind bars for nonviolent traffic, property, drug, or public order offenses,” reports The Sentencing Project, which is based in Washington.

The Trump Administration announced in July it released 3,100 inmates from federal prison for non-violent crimes. Many of the former inmates were low-level drug offenders.

Dan Cooper is research director for the Metropolitan Planning Council in Chicago and co-creator of the Chicago’s Million Dollar Blocks project.  The group tracks and analyzes incarceration trends in Chicago.  Cooper explained that incarceration hits some neighborhoods much harder than others.

“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, and emotional challenges, [as well as] family traumas because of it.”

Many Chicago residents sent to prison live in low-income black and Hispanic neighborhoods primarily concentrated on Chicago’s West and South Sides.

You don’t need to be an archeologist to dig this up. All you have to do is turn on your television set to watch the news. Television reporters show people being arrested. Most of those in handcuffs are black and Hispanic men. This reportage is the bread and butter of local television news.

The television reporter, whose hair is perfectly combed, tells the viewing audience what police say occurred.

To turn this issue into understandable art that needs to be questioned, Illinois Humanities has commissioned artists who live and work in the affected neighborhoods. Dorothy Burge lives in Bronzeville.

The other artists include:  Adela Goldbard, who worked with Little Village community residents; Jim Duignan, who created a publication and installation on visual and literary content from artists and organizations who work with the incarcerated; Sonja Henderson, who worked with North Lawndale residents to create a justice-themed multimedia structure incorporating textiles.

Additional artists are:  Nicole Marroquin, who worked in partnership with the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative and created audio recordings and ceramic amplifiers made by system-involved young people; Kirsten Leenaars, who created a movement and performance video of youth leaders from Circles & Ciphers in Rogers Park, and Project Fielding, a collective of female-identified nonbinary builders in the Back of the Yards.








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