What does freedom look like?
A group exhibition at Weinberg/Newton Gallery spotlights how incarceration impacts youth.
by Christina Nafziger, December 13, 2022
“Can you see me?” at Weinberg/Newton Gallery intentionally gives a platform to individuals affected by incarceration and to communities that have been deeply cut by the prison industrial complex. What does it mean to listen to a person’s experience while simultaneously considering the depth of change it has on a group, a community, a generation? How can artistic collaboration center the collective voices of incarcerated folks while maintaining their humanity as individuals?
This sentiment is put into practice with collaborative pieces by the youth in SkyART’s programming. Large and mural-like, these works, filled with symbols of youth, hold the spirit of street art and notebook doodles. Compelling images on their own, they are layered with powerful words and drawings—together often creating an abstracted body. These works are the sum of their parts, but are also powerful when viewed together, reminding us that incarceration doesn’t just affect the individual—each person is part of a family, a community; it reaches out like a web to change all it touches.
Along with this exhibition, concurrent shows were organized by Arts + Public Life and SkyART, which offers accessible arts programming to youth on Chicago’s south side. Several other organizations that serve youth and/or incarcerated communities are also represented here, including ConTextos, Arte Pro, and Circles & Ciphers. A unique aspect of the show is the presence of artwork created by youth involved with these organizations, as well as well-known artists such as Ebony G. Patterson and Cheryl Pope, whose piece WHEN I GET OUT I NOT NEVER COMING BACK greets you with haunting words as you enter the space, leaving you to wonder if this use of the double negative is a precursor to the fact that perhaps “I” may be “coming back” after all. This raw and intimate first-person voice is present throughout in letters that line the wall from currently incarcerated folks writing what freedom means to them and again in text written in public spaces throughout Chicago in the video, A Letter to the City: “jail is not my home” by Kirsten Leenaars and Circles & Ciphers.
“Can you see me?” is rich with content and, like most exhibitions tackling large, looming issues, it is marked by the amount of necessary (and important!) reading involved—but it is worth it. It is worth it to read the letters, sit with the material, and spend time with the words of folks spending time inside the walls, fighting against a system that has continued to fail them.
“Can you see me?” Through 12/21: Thu-Sun 11 AM-5 PM, Weinberg/Newton Gallery, 688 N. Milwaukee, weinbergnewtongallery.com