‘What Would Chicago Be Like With No Jails?’: New Saic Exhibit Challenges Artists and Chicagoans to Reimagine Criminal Justice
By Darcel Rockett, Chicago Tribune
What does justice look like? For many it resembles Greek goddess Themis, carrying her iconic scales, the image embodying fairness.
For Illinois Humanities, justice looks like quilt squares handmade by North Lawndale residents; abstract wooden structures that serve as safe gathering spaces in Back of the Yards; a play that tells the story of Little Village and its residents, ending in traditional Mexican pyrotechnics.
Opening Tuesday, “Envisioning Justice” features work from commissioned artists, activists, residents of South and West side neighborhoods, and youths currently in Cook County Jail and the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. The 10,000-square-foot multimedia exhibit is the culmination of a two-year initiative by Illinois Humanities to engage Chicagoans in conversation about the effects of incarceration. Each artwork — some the result of community dialogue, others the product of skill-sharing classes — aims to reimagine the nation’s criminal justice system as more fair, just and equitable.
“It’s a very, very different kind of show than I think people are used to seeing on this scale and this scope,” said Illinois Humanities Executive Director Gabrielle Lyon. “It’s very difficult to imagine a reality that’s not the one we’re in. That’s one of the things that this exhibit does, it says there are other possibilities. What would Chicago be like with no jails? What would a world be like where, for young people, there was no such thing as prison? What would those alternatives be like? Feel like?”
That mission is important for moms like Corniki Bornds, Doris Hernandez and Yolanda Jordan, all of whom lost children to gun violence.
The moms created squares for a 10-by-10-foot quilt titled “Harbor for Mending Hearts” — a concept by Pilsen artist Sonja Henderson wherein mothers in bereavement support groups create “tributes” to their late children inspired by memory and restorative healing practices. The quilt squares will eventually be the walls of a canopy tent by Henderson featured in the exhibit.
“These women have expressed to me that it’s important to be able to vocalize how they feel about their child, and who their child was, beyond how possibly the media may have portrayed him, even beyond their own family household,” Henderson said. “The tent structure has to do with stitching, and every stitch that we make is like a healing stitch, in the same way as if we stitched up a scar.”
Adela Goldbard’s installation “The Last Judgment” was produced by Gallery 400 at the University of Illinois at Chicago and co-written and performed by Little Village residents. The performance piece uses traditional Mexican pyrotechnic sculpture building and features narrative vignettes about environmental justice, immigration, deportation, incarceration and gentrification. Artists from Tultepec, Mexico — where the tradition of burning effigies is a cathartic, evil-purging act — were brought in to help build the large-scale structures, which will be burned in an Oct. 12 fireworks performance following a parade, Goldbard said.
“The project comes from the first Western play that was performed in what we now know as Mexico, a play that the Franciscans brought in to convert the indigenous population to Catholicism,” she said. “They used fireworks in order to frighten the population to make sure that the play would be effective. So the idea of this project is to use some of the same tools in a different manner — as a tool for resistance, purpose and celebration. The hope is that the event becomes a way to remember, a way to look at the future in a critical manner and a way to bring the community together.”
Project Fielding built “resistance structures” for the Let Us Breathe collective, an alliance of artists and activists inspired by the 2016 Homan Square police misconduct protest encampment. The structures will sit on empty lots in Back of the Yards — one as a greenhouse, the other as a shelter and stage for outdoor performances.
Amber Ginsburg, Project Fielding co-founder, said the structures are less about permanence and more about adaptability and meeting spontaneous needs that arise in the community. They also address the need for accessibility and use of space in black and brown communities, said Yordana Adedokun, noting that the Let Us Breathe collective did not purchase or get city approval to use the land.
“These are an attempt to reclaim the land that has been bought by the city and other capitalist corporations and redivest that land and those resources back into the community while providing opportunities for agriculture, community gathering and just an overall safe space for the community to come together,” Adedokun said. “That’s a part of the radical-abolitionist mission to reclaim and utilize land and resources within communities without the need to go through this chain of command to be able to have the community access these spaces.”