In August of 1619, a ship appeared on [the] horizon, near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the English colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans who were sold to the colonists. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed. On the 400th anniversary of this fateful moment, it is finally time to tell our story truthfully.
This introduction to “The 1619 Project,” a collection of essays published in the New York Times Magazine, organized by investigative journalist and 2017 MacArthur Fellow Nikole Hannah-Jones, frames the essential aim of the project, which Hannah-Jones calls the “most important work” of her life. The 1619 Project envisions a new history with new understandings of the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans to the establishment of America as a global power, arguing that the United States was founded at this moment in August of 1619 and not in 1776.
On October 8, 2019, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) held “The Struggle for Justice: 1619 Project and Changing the Narrative on Mass Incarceration” in partnership with the Pulitzer Center and Illinois Humanities. The event opened with remarks from Hannah-Jones and included an hour-long panel featuring Norris Henderson, Founder and Executive Director of the Voice of the Experienced; Sarah Ross, an assistant professor at SAIC and Cofounder of the Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project; Brian L. Frank, a photojournalist and Pulitzer Center Grantee; and Jason Boulware (MFA 2016), a lecturer at SAIC.
“The Struggle for Justice” was held in SAIC’s ballroom, an elegant, architectural space built during the gilded jazz age of the 1920’s. A couple hundred people filled the room, sitting in chairs, lining the walls, and even flowing over into the upper mezzanine. A fitting conclusionary program for Envisioning Justice, an exhibition organized by Illinois Humanities and presented at SAIC’s Sullivan Galleries in Downtown Chicago, the audience listened in a hushed kind of rapture as Nikole Hannah-Jones explained the inception of “The 1619 Project” and described the elucidating process of creating such an imperative body of work. When Hannah-Jones declared that the United States became the world’s wealthiest country through the labor of enslaved people, a few audience members snapped, some clapped, but the majority seemed uncertain of whether or not to applaud. “I know, it’s not something we know how to respond to,” she said and laughed at the seeming absurdity of such a moment.
Perhaps the most critical exhibition to be shown in Chicago this year, Envisioning Justice was a part of a much larger, citywide initiative that sought to engage Chicagoans of all neighborhoods, races, socioeconomic, and with a diversity of perspectives in conversations about the impact of incarceration in local communities, inviting residents to imagine how we could mitigate the effects of mass incarceration through art-making. The exhibition featured artwork, ephemera, and documentation from seven Chicago communities impacted by incarceration and works by artists whose practices respond to such themes. Interrogating the failures of the American criminal justice system, the exhibition was a key part of the larger projects vision of thinking critically about how we can work towards self-empowerment and communal liberation.
The Illinois Humanities commissioned seven Chicago-based artists and collectives to create work that joined in conversation with and responded to issues, concerns, and perspectives of the communities at the center of Envisioning Justice. Dorothy Burge, one of these commissioned artists, is a fabric and multimedia artist and community activist who began creating fiber art in the 1990s after the birth of her daughter. Burge received her Masters of Arts in Urban Planning and Policy and her Bachelors of Arts in Art Design, both from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is a member of Blacks Against Police Torture and Chicago Torture Justice Memorials; both are cultural collectives seeking justice for police torture survivors. Burge is also a member of the Women of Color Quilters Network (WCQN).
A current resident of Chicago’s Bronzeville Neighborhood, Burge creates quilts that depict police violence against African Americans, as well as other portraiture of significant figures from restorative justice movements happening throughout Chicago and beyond. One of the quilts on view in Envisioning Justice was a portrait of 17-year old Laquan McDonald, who was fatally shot by then-Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke in 2014. This January, Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder and was sentenced to nearly seven years in prison, making him the first Chicago patrolman in almost 50 years to be convicted of murder. In Burge’s quilt, McDonald’s mouth hangs open as if he is in perpetual shock. He is wearing a blue sweater emblazoned with the number 16 - the number of bullets that Van Dyke shot into him. Using McDonald’s autopsy, Burge placed 16 bullet holes on McDonald’s body as accurately as she could from the document. Burge’s work, like the other artists in the exhibition, spur conversation. Viewers are confronted with the brutality of the criminal justice system and are invited to reckon with its injustice.
However, the exhibition doesn’t limit itself to merely depictions of violence and injustice. It begins to formulate a response to these effects of criminal justice system by presenting art, curricula, and ephemera produced by youth and adults at over a year of events, classes, and conversations in five Chicago neighborhoods impacted by incarceration and within the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center and Cook County Jail. These neighborhoods include: Back of the Yards, Bronzeville, Little Village, North Lawndale, and Rogers Park. Part of the exhibition's success is its ability to extend beyond the gallery and into the neighborhoods that experience the effects of mass incarceration every day. Art, for these communities, becomes a strategy for pursuing justice and healing.
During “The Struggle for Justice,” Sarah Ross explained the importance of projects like the Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project, which connects teaching artists and scholars to people at Stateville Prison through classes, workshops and guest lectures. During 14 week courses, participants are invited to create finished projects of visual art, creative writing or scholarly works that are exhibited and read in neighborhood galleries or cultural centers. Ross asks the audience - “What can we learn from each other?; Who are our audiences?; What materials and methods best relate our concerns?; What can we say from inside a maximum security prison?”
This exploratory thinking, essential to the premise of Envisioning Justice and “The 1619 Project” is indicative of shifts in contemporary thought about the function of art and the importance of centering local, community-based narratives through art as we pursue justice for a history of incarceration, enslavement, and racial injustice in the United States. While the exhibition closed October 12, 2019, the Illinois Humanities-funded initiative continues through a number of community partnerships; citywide grants for arts and humanities programs in jails and prisons, for communications efforts to better tell stories about policy and data, and for community-led discussions; and multimedia journalism efforts. As Nicole Hann-Jones says about “The 1619 Project,” “You can’t read it and not understand that something is owed.” Envisioning Justice leaves viewers with a similar sentiment - the conversation has been and will continue to go on, but what is owed to these communities? How can art making bring some semblance of justice and healing?