Review: Art That Empowers Social Change at DePaul Art Museum

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

Following the start of the “Global War on Terror” in 2002, the United States established an extralegal military prison at Guantánamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba. This location was chosen at the time to deliberately avoid U.S. and international law. Since then, it has been the site of major human rights violations, such as holding people for indefinite periods of time without trial, subjecting them to extreme interrogation methods, torture, and even death.

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

On display are more than 100 works produced by torture survivors, artists, activists, and collectives with long-term commitments to creating visions of justice. This exhibition has been organized by the DePaul Art Museum staff and curated by contributing artists Amber Ginsburg and Aaron Hughes.

Here are some highlights from this exhibition:

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

The installation Coordinates of Torture, (by Maira Khwaja,  Maheen Khan, Marie Mendoza, Invisible Institute) creates a powerful message because it juxtaposes modern education tools of the iPad and mapping technology against a desk that is a remnant from the mass closure of predominantly Black public schools on the South and West sides of Chicago in 2013. This is an interactive installation because it allows viewers to visualize not only the geography but also the interconnected history of torture and policing between the Chicago Police and the U.S. military.

The collaborative works between photographer Debi Cornwall and Guantánamo survivor Djamel Ameziane create a visual impact about living conditions at Guantánamo. Ameziane writes directly onto Cornwell’s six photographs— his words act as a commentary as he rewrites state-sanctioned history about Guantánamo.

There is an impressive body of work on display that was generated in art classes taught in Stateville by P+NAP, a collective of artists, writers and scholars. When looking at these works, the viewer experiences each artist’s keen perspective about 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 murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by the police. Sarah-Ji Rhee is a photographer who has been documenting freedom struggles in Chicago for the past decade. Equally impressive are the works by Damon Locks titled Keep Your Mind Free. These nine works have the look and feel 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 Center for Constitutional Rights. Photo: Robert Chase Heishman.

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

Dorothy Burge, Free Robert Allen from the series Won’t You Help to Sing These Songs of Freedom, 2021. Quilted Fabric. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Zoey Dalbert/DePaul Art Museum

In Dorothy Burge’s new series of works, Won’t You Help to Sing These Songs of Freedom, the artist combines her improvisational hand-quilting practice with her experience as an activist and community organizer. In this series, she depicts six men who are incarcerated and were tortured into making false confessions by then 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 Guantánamo is a compelling exhibition because viewers will see how art can make an impact on social justice issues while also providing a platform on how to create change within a community–either on the local or global stage.

This exhibition will run through August 7. The DePaul Art Museum is located at 935 W. Fullerton Ave. Gallery hours are Wednesday and Thursday 11am-7pm; Friday, Saturday and Sunday 11am-5pm. Admission is free. 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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Tom Wawzenek
Tom Wawzenek
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