Free Write Arts & Literacy Presents: The Artist Will Be Present

Free Write Arts & Literacy Presents
The Artist Will Be Present
September 10 – December 16
Fourth Presbyterian Church
126 E. Chestnut St.
Chicago, IL 60608

Rewind to 2014. Free Write presented our third annual multimedia exhibition of work produced by students detained in the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center. The exhibition, The Artists Will Not Be Present curated by Chelsea Ross, featured creative writing, visual art, music, and spoken word poetry created by our incarcerated youth.

The title, a play on Marina Abramović’s The Artist Is Not Present, is an acknowledgment of the material reality of the young artists featured in the exhibition. So often, at public exhibitions of our students’ work, do people ask, even after they had been explicitly informed that Free Write works in youth jails and the artists are currently in pre-trial detention, “So, will the artists be here?” No, there are no field trips to art exhibitions, or anywhere, for kids in pre-trial detention. The artist will not be present.

As Free Write enters our 20th year, we find ourselves connected to many of our students as they return to the community. They get out, find us, and say, “Let’s work. What’s next?” At their request, we have developed robust opportunities for them to advance the skills they gained in Free Write on the inside, a “continuum of engagement” with them as they move through and away from incarceration. This exhibition is a follow up to the 2014 exhibition, but flipped to focus on the presence of the artist, their powerful stories, and their leadership in the movement to divest from systems of violence and invest in community-based solutions to issues that give rise to youth incarceration.

In The Artist Will Be Present, the artists require our presence, too. They invite us to see ourselves in them, to connect our personal narratives to theirs. Too often do audiences engage with the stories of our students only to walk away saying, with pearls clutched, “Oh my, those poor children. That must be so hard for them.” This sympathy is other-ing, patronizing, and often skids off toward fetishization. The artists herein have taken tremendous emotional risks by sharing their stories with us. By doing so, they have asserted themselves as leaders in the long process of building the empathy necessary to dismantle this and all systems of violence. It is our turn to be emotionally open, vulnerable, and honest with ourselves and with each other.

Check the church calendar or for info on upcoming talks by the artists featured here.

The Artist Will Be Present is curated by Elgin Bokari Smith and Ryan Keesling.