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South Chicago, East Side

Incarcerated Youth Express Freedom, Justice, Innocence Through Art In Exhibition Opening This Weekend

"Can you see me?" debuts Friday in West Town before expanding to exhibits in Washington Park and South Chicago later this month.

One of the large, collaborative paintings created by youth at the Illinois Youth Center-Chicago, a juvenile detention center for young men on the West Side. The painting and several others are the foundation for the "Can you see me?" exhibition, which opens at three sites on the North and South sides this month.
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SOUTH CHICAGO — An exhibition centering artwork from youth in state detention facilities runs this weekend through the end of the year, providing incarcerated children a platform for their work while showing the value of creativity as a tool for restorative justice.

“Can you see me?” opens with a reception 5 p.m. Friday at the Weinberg/Newton Gallery, 688 N. Milwaukee Ave. in West Town. The exhibition centers large, collaborative paintings that created by young incarcerated artists.

The exhibition will expand to two other locations and include panel discussions and a film premiere in the coming weeks.

“FREEDOM SPACE,” a healing space created from objects and artworks that center Black girls’ play, opens Oct. 21 at Arts + Public Life, 301 E. Garfield Blvd. in Washington Park. The space was curated by Scheherazade Tillet and highlights the South Side Home Movie Project, alongside other creators.

“Can you see me? Envisioning the Future,” an exhibit of artworks by Southeast Side community members who work with youth and are directly impacted by incarceration, opens Oct. 28 at SkyART’s studios, 3026 E. 91st St. in South Chicago. The exhibit examines “what is possible in a future that centers justice for youth.”

A panel discussion on the effects of and alternatives to youth incarceration is Nov. 4. A conversation on the healing power of art is Nov. 11, and a talk about youth incarceration in the Americas will be held Nov. 17. All discussions begin 5:30 p.m. at the Weinberg/Newton Gallery.

Video artist Kirsten Leenaars and local restorative justice group Circles & Ciphers will premiere their feature-length film 6 p.m. Dec. 9 at the Weinberg/Newton Gallery, followed by a Q&A with the filmmakers.

The youth whose work is central to the exhibition “are kids and not criminals,” co-curator Devon VanHouten-Maldonado said.

They reject the stigma that they’re “unsalvageable,” as they’re not only “worthy of all the same attention and resources as more privileged kids who are not involved in the criminal justice system — but they need more,” VanHouten-Maldonado said.

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One of the several collaborative pieces created by incarcerated youth that will be featured in the “Can you see me?” exhibition.

“Can you see me?” grew out of SkyART’s Just-Us art therapy program, which serves young people at juvenile detention centers in Chicago and Warrenville and at the Manuel Saura shelter in Logan Square, VanHouten-Maldonado said.

Just-Us participants developed themes of freedom, flying, innocence and other “aspirational” ideas through discussion and collaboration, said VanHouten-Maldonado, who participates in the program every week as SkyART’s program director.

Even as the artists explore those aspirations, they depict them in “complex, sometimes tragic” ways that may not immediately click with people who have never been incarcerated, VanHouten-Maldonado said.

“Can you see me?” paints “a nuanced portrait” of youth in the criminal justice system — a necessary concept in the contemporary art world, where patrons may not otherwise engage with the issues those youth face, VanHouten-Maldonado said.

The young artists’ creations are complemented by works from Ebony G. Patterson, Jim Duignan and Cheryl Pope, who center social justice in their practices, VanHouten-Maldonado said.

“The work these incarcerated youth are creating is as valuable, as meaningful and as deep” as the pieces created by their working artist collaborators, VanHouten-Maldonado said.

Another featured piece in the Can you see me? exhibition, which includes street signs with meaningful locations and symbols, including 91st Street and Houston Avenue — the location of SkyART’s studios. The piece also includes keywords like “Love,” “Mob,” “Real” and “Fate.”

The multi-venue exhibition allows for “two-way accessibility,” VanHouten-Maldonado said.

The South and West side communities most impacted by incarceration have access to contemporary art through the Washington Park and South Chicago exhibits. Meanwhile, the West Town gallery brings lived experiences and structural issues from the criminal justice system into the art world, VanHouten-Maldonado said.

Exhibition organizers are working with the state’s corrections department to bring the incarcerated creators on a field trip to see the exhibit they started and inspired, VanHouten-Maldonado said.

Organizers also want to bring “Can you see me?” to other cities once it wraps at Arts + Public Life Dec. 16 and at SkyART and the Weinberg/Newton Gallery Dec. 17.

A traveling exhibit would engage more people around creating restorative justice systems for kids and give the young creators more chances to show their work as artists once they’re released from the system, VanHouten-Maldonado said.

“For the amount we spend on incarcerating youth, we could put them through college, provide food and housing for their families and provide mental services,” he said. “If we’re investing in surrounding these youth with resources, we’ll have much better outcomes than if we’re depriving them of resources. Deprivation leads to criminality.”

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