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Nicole Marroquin’s protest posters are a bit more elaborate than most homemade signs one might spot at a Black Lives Matter demonstration. Rather than recycled cardboards bearing spray-painted slogans, her prints look more like Andy Warhol-inspired silkscreens, filled with scenes from Chicago’s storied organizing history.
On one poster, an all-caps headline, “GET THEM OUT,” frames a 1968 black-and-white photograph of Chicago police restraining students at the now-closed Harrison High School during a walkout to demand more Black and Latino teachers, ethnic studies courses, and insurance for athletes, among other resources. On another, the word “ABOLITION,” in pink capital letters, is stamped atop a shot of officers at the Froebel School, a separate branch of Harrison, during another uprising for improved conditions five years later.
“I think a lot about the way that history exists in another layer of our consciousness.” said Marroquin, who lives in South Lawndale, where Harrison High once stood. She’s made schools the focus of her art, she said, because they’re “sites of social transformation,” where young people have, time and again, fought for a more equitable world.
When COVID-19 first hit the US, artist collectives around the country were preoccupied with raising emergency funds to help cover canceled exhibitions, rent, and other expenses for members of their own community. Since the murder of George Floyd, independent artmakers have also emerged as facilitators and fundraisers for the continuing abolition movement. In California, muralists with Trust Your Struggle collective furnished buildings in Sacramento and Oakland with portraits of Floyd and Elijah McClain — a Black massage therapist killed by Colorado police in August of 2019 — along with imagery of chains breaking and calls for reparations. In New York, artists from the Chinatown Art Brigade released informational pamphlets condemning local cultural institutions for verbally supporting the Black Lives Matter movement while covertly backing the construction of a new 40-story jail.
For Chicago-based artists, a coronavirus outbreak at Cook County Jail in the spring became a catalyzing moment. Since late March, 533 inmates have been infected, and seven have died, according to the Cook County Sheriff’s Office. (The spread was effectively contained by July, and only 15 active cases were recorded as of this week.) Calls for criminal justice reform continued to gain traction in the summer, when the Chicago police arrested more than 2,000 protesters one weekend in June. The past couple of weeks have also brought heightened tension with the deployment of federal troops from the Department of Homeland Security.
Marroquin, whose house is just a few blocks away from the Cook County facility, said that she couldn’t just stand by when “folks around me are stuck in a giant corona petri dish.” As a new member of the Just Seeds artists’ cooperative, she began making posters and prints to raise money for groups such as the Chicago Community Bond Fund, Voices of Youth in Chicago Education, and Minnesota’s Black Visions Collective. So far, she’s amassed more than $5,000 in sales and donations.
“This moment has been a jumpstart to my organizing,” said Marroquin, who also teaches art education at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “It’s helped me figure out what I need to do as an artist to make a world that can better support my family.”
For Brian Herrera, a queer, Latino illustrator, art has been one of the few safe avenues to contribute to the abolition movement, given that the possibility of arrest have made protesting extremely dangerous. Earlier this month, he partnered with Illegal Drip, a fashion brand run by undocumented immigrants, to design a t-shirt featuring a panther encircled by the slogan, “Until We Are All Free.” The first bundle sold out in days, raising several thousand dollars for Brave Space Alliance, a Black- and trans-led LGBTQ center on the South Side.
“The work I do requires me to represent my community, and it’s been taking a toll emotionally and mentally,” said Herrera, who’s also a member of the Define American Undocumented Art Fellows program, which supports immigrant artists and trains them to collaborate with community organizations. “But it’s been reassuring to see that people are listening and paying attention. All that labor feels worth it.”
For some artists, the road to abolishing police and prisons starts with humanizing the Black and Brown lives lost behind bars. In May, For The People Artists Collective, a group of eight queer, trans, gender non-conforming, and cis illustrators of color, worked with the Chicago Community Bond Fund to create a virtual quilt project that memorializes the seven Cook County inmates who died of COVID-19. Each quilt square features the name or an intimate portrait of each individual, captured in a moment of sorrow, contemplation, or peace.
“As artists we know the way that mainstream media dehumanizes people who are lost within state walls,” said co-founder Monica Trinidad, a queer, Latina artist. “The only time you see them is either through mugshots or arrest reports.” This project, she continued, was an attempt to help people recognize that an inmate is also “someone’s brother, father, or son.”
Working on the project was an emotional experience for some artists who have had interactions with people in the criminal justice system. Naimah Thomas, who memorialized detainee Karl Battiste, interned at Cook County Jail several years ago, where her brother was incarcerated after a confrontation that was incited by his mental illness.
“With COVID right now, I think people sometimes just hear numbers,” said Thomas, who’s also an art therapist. “For me, it’s important to use art to remember, to use a delicate pattern to show that this person who died really mattered.”
Earlier this month, La Colombe Coffee Roasters reached out to Thomas and asked her to decorate a mug-and-roast bundle package with artwork she created in 2016, with a portion of proceeds going to the ACLU. The illustration shows the backsides of three young Black girls, against a cluttered, grey background filled with the words, “I Matter.” Though she’s happy to broaden the impact of her work, Thomas said she’s often wary of the idea of monetizing activism.
“Sometimes there’s a rush to say we support Black lives and people of color, but the question is, ‘How are you showing up?’” she asked, adding that it’s not enough to donate to art collectives and community organizations simply as a means to an end. “What else can we do after funds have been disbursed? How can we be intersectional, and intentional, in the work we do?”
Editor’s Note: In the above, the reference to a coronavirus outbreak which took place at Cook County Jail in Chicago contained erroneous information. It has since been corrected and updated by data shared with the author by the Cook’s County Sheriff’s office. We apologize for the error.