Review: Art That Empowers Social Change at the DePaul Art Museum

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The latest exhibition at the DePaul Art Museum, Remaking the Exceptional: Tea, Torture and Reparations | Chicago to Guantanamo, explores the legal and moral implications of torture and incarceration.

After the “Global War on Terror” began in 2002, the United States established an extralegal military prison at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. This location was chosen at the time to deliberately avoid US and international law. Since then, it has been the scene of major human rights violations, such as the detention of people for indefinite periods without trial, their subjection to extreme interrogation methods, torture and even death.

This exhibition highlights the abuses that took place at Guantánamo and the links between the police and incarceration in Chicago. It also celebrates the struggle for survival, justice and reparations for imprisoned people, activists and artists.

Over 100 works are exhibited by torture survivors, artists, activists and collectives with long-term commitments to creating visions of justice. This exhibition was curated by the staff of the DePaul Art Museum and curated by contributing artists Amber Ginsburg and Aaron Hughes.

Here are some highlights of this exhibition:

the tea project (by Amber Ginsburg and Aaron Hughes) is inspired by stories of people, imprisoned in Guantánamo, who made marks on styrofoam cups to express themselves despite the oppressive prison conditions. the tea project cast 780 porcelain replicas of Styrofoam teacups, one for each individual who is currently or has been imprisoned in the camp. Each mug is unique as it bears an individual’s name and country on its underside while the body of the mug is engraved with national or native flowers of that country. The number of flowers engraved on each cup reflects the number of imprisoned men from their respective countries.

Installation Torture coordinates, (by Maira Khwaja, Maheen Khan, Marie Mendoza, Invisible Institute) creates a powerful message as it juxtaposes the modern educational tools of the iPad and mapping technology with a desk that is a remnant of the mass closure of predominantly public schools black in the South and West Sides of Chicago in 2013. It is an interactive installation as it allows viewers to visualize not only the geography, but also the interconnected history of torture and policing between the Chicago police and the US military.

Collaborative work between photographer Debi Cornwall and Guantánamo survivor Djamel Ameziane creates a visual impact on living conditions at Guantánamo. Ameziane writes directly on Cornwell’s six photographs – his words act as commentary as he rewrites state-sanctioned history on Guantánamo.

There is an impressive body of work on display that was generated in art classes taught at Stateville by P+NAP, a collective of artists, writers, and scholars. Looking at these works, the viewer experiences each artist’s acute perspective on life and also how they express personal emotions of pain, hope and joy.

Sarah-Ji Rhee, Abolitionist dreams, abolitionist imaginations, 2015–21. Digital photo. Courtesy of the artist.

A collection of 24 photos by Sarah-Ji Rhee documents the protest marches that took place after the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Sarah-Ji Rhee is a photographer who has been documenting freedom struggles in Chicago for a decade. Equally impressive are the works by Damon Locks titled Keep your mind free. These nine works have the appearance of a graphic novel as they address issues of justice/injustice, resilience, identity and freedom.

Ghaleb Al-Bihani, Untitled, 2015. Pastel on paper. Courtesy of the artist and the Center for Constitutional Rights. Photo: Robert Chase Heishman.

Guantánamo prisoner art shares some common themes and subject matter. One of the subjects painted by a number of prisoners was ships at sea. On display are four paintings of ships by artists Ghaleb Al-Bihani, Djamel Ameziane and Khalid Qasim. Ships sailing the open sea express their deep desire for freedom. Another theme explored is the imagery of dead trees. The eight paintings of dead trees in this exhibit seem to symbolize the loss of life due to torture and inhumane living conditions. But what is interesting to note is that despite the fact that these trees are dead, they also evoke a sense of strength and endurance, as each tree still remains upright and firmly rooted in the ground. The artists of these works are Ghaleb Al-Bihani, Ahmed Badr Rabbani, Muhammad Ansi and Djamel Ameziane.

Dorothee Burge, Free Robert Allen from the Serie Won’t you help sing these freedom songs, 2021. Quilted fabric. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Zoey Dalbert/DePaul Museum of Art

In Dorothy Burge’s new series of works, Won’t you help sing these songs of freedom, the artist combines her improvised practice of hand quilting with her experience as an activist and community organizer. In this series, she portrays six men incarcerated and tortured for making false confessions by Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and a group of police officers known as the “Midnight Crew”. Dorothy Burge (no relation to Jon Burge) allows the personal and the political to come together in these quilts as emblems of the intergenerational struggles of survivors seeking justice and reparations.

Remaking the Exceptional: Tea, Torture and Reparations | Chicago to Guantanamo is a compelling exhibition because viewers will see how art can impact issues of social justice while providing a platform on how to create change within a community, whether on the stage local or global.

This exhibition will continue until August 7. The DePaul Art Museum is located at 935 W. Fullerton Ave. The gallery’s opening hours are Wednesday and Thursday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free entry. For more information and to review the museum’s health and safety policies, visit their website or call 773-325-7506.

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