‘Makes Me Wanna Holla’ puts injustices of carceral system on display

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“This fellowship is centered on artists whose work engages with the carceral system,” said Alice Kim, director of the Beyond Prisons Project at CSRPC. “The work of Michelle and Mama Dorothy is so powerful because it’s lifting up and making visible who is behind the prison wall.”

Walking into the space, visitors find themselves among Burge’s colorful series of quilted portraits—titled “Won’t You Help to Sing These Songs of Freedom?”—depicting incarcerated survivors of Chicago police torture and other stories of resilience.

Daniel Jones, with activist group Mourning Our Losses, curated a traveling memorial of over 60 pieces of visual art, poetry, music and oral history interviews. “We Shall Remember” features current and formerly incarcerated artists speaking to the horrors of the COVID-19 pandemic while honoring those lives lost behind bars.

“I think the end result is just so intense and powerful to see all the different voices, different perspectives,” said Tracye Matthews, CSRPC’s executive director.

Who gets remembered?

In the early days of the pandemic, artist and scholar Michelle Daniel Jones was terrified for her friends behind bars. COVID was sweeping through prisons with lightning speed—those stuck in cramped cells some of the most vulnerable to infection.

Daniel Jones and a group of volunteers petitioned government officials for early releases. Their requests were denied. Since the viral outbreak, over half a million people in state and federal prisons have contracted COVID. At least 3,000 have died.

Through grief and anger, these organizers officially formed Mourning Our Losses in April 2020. With a digital memorial website, they sought to mourn those who had died from the virus, while continuing to advocate for the release of those still behind bars. 

“We wanted to make sure people understand that people were dying significantly from this pandemic,” said Daniel Jones, co-founder of Mourning Our Losses. “But also raise the reality that a lot of the people who die in prison often have the silent unremarked death.”

The Mourning Our Losses team put out a call for submissions, seeking all styles of art that engaged with the pandemic and incarceration. The careful search resulted in 50 contributing artists, most of whom are formerly or currently incarcerated.

Each piece on display reflects a painstaking process filled with forms, background checks, communication hurdles and other hallmarks of prison bureaucracy. As a first-time curator, Daniel Jones was also acutely aware of how every participating artist was treated throughout the process.

“We wanted to make sure that you are identified the way you want—that you receive some compensation—and we take care of your work once the show is over,” Daniel Jones said. “That was hugely important to us.”

The traveling memorial “We Shall Remember” weaves all these voices together, creating a chorus resounding with despair, resilience, hope and pain of friends lost.

“While at Stateville Prison in Illinois,” Carlos Ayala said in his artist’s statement, “I saw individuals I knew for twenty years pass away from COVID-19. So, the opportunity to represent them is an honor.”

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