The Craft of Reparations: The DePaul Museum of Art Connects Local and International State Violence

Sarah-Ji Rhee, “Abolitionist Dreams, Abolitionist Imaginations,” 2015-21/Photo: Courtesy of the artist

A photograph by Chicago organizer Sarah-Ji Rhee shows a protester holding a sign with the caption “Abolition is a radical imagination,” the latter words surrounded by thought bubbles. Art often exceeds the law; activists always had to redraw the boundaries of what seemed politically possible. This point is particularly true in the case of repairs. The movement to demand material reparation for the profound social damage of chattel slavery and its enduring structural consequences has had more failures than successes, at least when measured in monetary terms. But, as Robin DG Kelley points out, the history of reparations can best be understood as a rich archive of imaginative activism, provocative attempts to challenge the status quo. When the Chicago City Council passed a landmark reparations ordinance in 2015, the first such legislation to provide for the disproportionately high number of (mostly black) survivors of police torture, it was thanks to the efforts of a coalition of artists and activists who put radical imagination into practice.

What should repairs look like? And what do the repairs look like? I’ve spoken to artists, activists, and torture survivors who have explored these issues by addressing two cases: the well-documented tragedy of Chicago police torture and the ongoing international Guantánamo Bay scandal. Their work is part of the exhibition “Remaking the Exceptional: Tea, Torture and Reparations | Chicago to Guantánamo,” opening in March at the DePaul Art Museum. Tangibly linked by figures such as Richard Zuley, the detective who brought sophisticated torture techniques to the Chicago Police Department in 2002, the two sites exemplify the many ties that bind the world-class military-industrial complex to the sprawling horror of the North. American prison system.

Debi Cornwall and Djamel Ameziane, “Comfort Items, Camp 5 (Stop Lying to the World)”, 2015/Photo: Courtesy of the artists

I. Chicago is another Guantánamo

Mansoor Adfayi was kidnapped, tortured and held at Guantánamo Bay for over fourteen years without charge. “Chicago is another Guantánamo,” he argues, pointing to fundamental similarities between the treatment of black torture survivors and Muslims held in military custody. Abuse, torture and denial of fair judicial hearings are not simply well documented in either case; they are the ones who run the national police and the “war on terrorism”. A painting by Sabri Mohammed al-Qurashi, made at Guantánamo around the same time as his iconic vision of a hooded Statue of Liberty, depicts the chained ankles of a figure clad in a bright orange jumpsuit. The light is harsh, evoking the hot Caribbean sun, but the very close scene is dislocated from any precise context. It could just as easily be Ohio as Cuba. Although the world now knows Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib (where senior military brass learned from Zuley’s techniques), it has proven difficult to publicly expose the depth and extent of Chicago’s police torture. “Perhaps to some extent it is worse than Guantanamo,” says Adfayi. “We can see that the international community, other countries, even the US government agree that Guantanamo is wrong.”

“Tea Project” (Amber Ginsburg and Aaron Hughes), “La Amistad, Like the Waters from 19.9031° N, 75.0967° W to 41°52’04.5″N 87°42’39.4”W on January 11, 2002”, 2022 Silkscreen pasted on BFK Rives paper. Courtesy of the artists/Photo: Zoey Dalbert, DePaul Art Museum

II. A constellation of violence

Discussions of Chicago police torture have centered on a handful of notorious figures, including Jon Burge, who drew on his military background to lead a decades-long campaign of torture and violence on the South Side. But, as artist Sarah Ross points out, the problem is bigger: “Burge is one person among a huge constellation of people, not just police officers. State attorneys, a whole bunch of other people in the legal field. And clearly the same could be said of Guantánamo. Asking for reparations means more than targeting specific individuals. It means transforming the social institutions, wealth structures and histories we privilege, as well as recognizing specific cases of torture as symptomatic of an overwhelming history of violence and anti-blackness. Recent projects by Dorothy Burge, who is unrelated to Jon, include exquisitely colored quilted portraits of torture survivors who remain incarcerated. “African Americans have been fighting against genocide since we came here,” she tells me, “I’m doing this quilt series to raise awareness and keep this issue alive.” Torture is linked to other forms of policing, surveillance and daily violence. “Right now, I’m not safe,” Burge says. “I am an elder. I’m proud of the fact that I’m an elder, going to a protest as an elder, being harassed by the police for wearing a #BlackLivesMatter mask. Where is the security in that?

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

III. Repairs are work

The fight for reparations is slow. To cite an obvious example, the Chicago City Council pledged funds for a memorial to police torture – designed by John Lee and Patricia Nguyen – but repeatedly failed to provide the money. Of course, the work of building movements and imagining more just futures is also slow. Curator Amber Ginsburg describes the process in terms of craft practice: “As an artist and someone who connects to craft, I think a lot about increasing learning. When you hit a potter’s wheel for the first time, it takes a long time to learn something through your body. Repairs, too, are a trade. Ginsburg connects fundamental demands, like financial compensation, to issues of liability and apology, the less obviously material components essential to the lasting success of any remedial project.

Amber Ginsburg and Aaron Hughes, ‘Teacup Archive’, 2014-ongoing/Photo: Courtesy of the artists

IV. Speculative Futures Contracts

Much of the art made at Guantánamo, like the exquisite pastel work of Ghaleb al-Bihani, is surprisingly imaginative. Reparations take the past into account, but reparations requests are inherently forward-looking; they envision a good future that could develop out of an imperfect present. As Maira Khwaja of the Invisible Institute puts it, “I think we are all still on our way, collectively, collectively, to even understand what justice looks like. A justice which is not incarceration, which is not counter-violence. Similarly, Rhee contrasts the diagnosis of technologies of violence with the celebration and invention of technologies of resistance. Radical imagination is the way to access new forms of justice. (Luc A. Fidler)

“Remaking the Exceptional: Tea, Torture, & Reparations|Chicago to Guantánamo” is on view at the DePaul Art Museum, 935 West Fullerton, through August 7.

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Reggie S. Williams