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ARTSY: 6 Artists Imagine What a World without Prisons Looks Like

Kirsten Leenaars, Present Tense, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Illinois Humanities.

Over the past two years, Chicago artists and locals have turned to art to consider criminal justice reform. Through the initiative Envisioning Justice, run by the nonprofit Illinois Humanities, artists convened with individuals and organizations of seven Chicago communities that have been deeply affected by mass incarceration. Together, they discussed the harmful effects of incarceration, imagined what a just legal system would look like, and harnessed creativity to develop strategies to work towards such a healthy reality. The culmination of their work is now on view in the exhibition “Envisioning Justice” at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Here, six participating artists share their work and discuss what a world without prisons would look like, in their own words.

“The video Present Tense (2019) is collectively made with young members of the Circles & Ciphers community in which they perform individual freestyle raps about their own lived experiences. When learning all about the work of Circles & Ciphers and attending their circle meetings, I was struck by the strong sense of community and the joy present within the group. Their joy felt like a powerful act of resistance in the face of racism, police brutality, and personal experiences with the criminal justice system. The nature of these struggles requires an opposite force that enables communities and individuals to persist and resist. Creating a space for joy and expression as I witnessed at Circles & Ciphers seems fundamental for the well-being and healing of our society. While developing ideas for the video work, I imagined a place where people feel seen and heard, and where their joy and sense of belonging are imperative.”

Here is an excerpt from Miguel MV’s freestyle rap:

But hope beyond hope

Just close your eyes to sleep and

You’ll start believing the American dream and

While counting sheep then

You’ll feel like you’re free!

Freedom of speech, that’s just the freedom to bleat

When the wolves come to eat.

The American Pie has been wolfed by Wall Street

They’ll wash it all down with coke and coffee.

“But hold on mon ami, you know that freedom ain’t free,

And if you wanna eat you gotta earn your money.

It wouldn’t work feeding, clothing, and housing the lazy.

Ultimately all that matter is myself and family.”

Exactly what’s maddening. It’s branded as sanity.

The life-blood contained in our veins is vanity.

In vain I’ve sustained some hope for a remedy

What the wise prescribe is a large dose of settling.

They tell me it’s not settling,

That these never-ending cycles are just pedaling.

But what is it you’re peddling?

Who can I trust when profits dictate everything?

Politics is weaponry—

Teach me fear, then sell me peace.

Media for measuring

Medicine is luxury

Schools became a factory,

Producing patriots pledging allegiance to consumption.


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