Inmates explore what it means to be a citizen through artworks now on display at Pilsen gallery
“Citizenship” is a loaded word, used to confer different sets of rights depending on the context in which it is used and the people it is describing. For Black and Brown people, citizenship in America is “conditional,” according to Alicia Garza, one of the co-founders of the national Black Lives Matter movement.
“This is the harsh reality for black people in America today,” Garza said at the Citizen University’s annual national conference in 2016. “We are expected to participate in democracy while receiving conditional citizenship in return.”
For those who are currently or formerly incarcerated, this means limited voting rights and limited housing, job, and educational opportunities.
These circumstances inform the perspectives that inmates at Stateville Correctional Center (16830 IL-53, Crest Hill, IL) brought to their art classes with the Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project (PNAP). PNAP, according to their website, “is a visual arts and humanities project that connects teaching artists and scholars to men at Stateville Maximum Security Prison through classes, workshops and guest lectures.” It was established in 2010 after the death of Dr. Margaret Burroughs, founder of the DuSable Museum of African-American History and a former volunteer teacher at Stateville.
Over the course of 14 weeks, participants met with PNAP instructors William Estrada and Aaron Hughes, both of whom are independent artists, for weekly printmaking workshops centered around the idea of citizenship. Estrada’s class, for example, read “Citizen,” a poetry book by Claudia Rankine, for inspiration, then set to work on their prints. In an exhibition entitled “Conditional Citizenship,” the products of those workshops are now on display at the Uri-Eichen Gallery (2101 S Halsted St) in Pilsen through March 1st. The works explore the participants’ perception of citizenship and its connotations.
“In my class, we just tried to think about what ‘citizenship’ meant to people,” Estrada said. “[Citizenship] of who, of what? … Can we reject citizenship and become sovereign nations ourselves, in our bodies?”
Hanging high on one wall are colorful banners created in Hughes’ “Fly Your Flag” class, where students were asked to create a “new people’s flag” that would represent their ideal community. One flag, crafted by Carlos Ayala, features seven multi-colored stripes meant to represent the seven continents and the different races and ethnicities of people who inhabit them. Superimposed on those stripes are images of fists, representing the builders of the community; a dove, representing peace; and footprints, representing immigrants. On another wall are 30 prints representing each article of the Constitution of the State of Illinois. Written on the wall are the words, “All [prison] sentences shall be determined with the objective of restoring the offender to useful citizenship.”
This question of what it means to be a “useful” citizen lies at the heart of the “Conditional Citizenship” exhibition.
“What does it mean if you’re incarcerated and you aren’t a citizen of the U.S.?” Estrada asked. “What is the responsibility of the correctional facility? Can they bring you up to be a citizen that can make your community better if you’re not a citizen of the community that you’re incarcerated in?”
Kathy Steichen, who runs the Uri-Eichen Gallery with her husband, Christopher Urias, said the mission of the gallery is “to bring people together from all over the Chicago region to have a dialogue about issues of community, building social justice, human rights, and to take action on those subjects in our community.”
She said they chose to host the exhibition because incarcerated people are left out of mind far too often.
“They’re human beings too, and too often we drive by correctional facilities and don’t really think about what’s going on behind those walls and what they’re going through,” Steichen said. “What are the societal issues that helped bring about where they are? Maybe lack of education, lack of investment, lack of good jobs, lack of labor. … Institutional racism is a huge problem.”
She hopes that the exhibition can help spark discussions around an issue that, according to her, many people have the privilege of ignoring.
“We all need to be tackling those things, no matter what our race or outlook. We need to be involved in those issues and participating as citizens in that discussion to try to rectify those wrongs,” Steichen said.
“Conditional Citizenship” runs at the Uri-Eichen Gallery until March 1st. Because the gallery is volunteer owned and operated, there are no set hours, but appointments to visit the exhibition can be made by calling (312) 852-7717.