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Introducing Project NIA’s First Artist’s Residency…

Artist residency

At Project NIA, we rely on multiple methods for educating and inciting the public to support our mission. We know that we need to convince a critical mass of our neighbors to accept our vision of what’s possible, namely a world without prisons. One of the modalities for engagement that we use in our organizing and advocacy is art.

We subscribe to African-American artist and activist Elizabeth Catlett’s view that: “Art is only important to the extent that it aids in the liberation of our people.” This idea is not uncontroversial. There are many who do not believe in the concept that art is most valuable when it is put to the service of movement-building and social justice. Some argue that this is a utilitarian view of art that actually limits its potential and reduces its import. The view that art should exist for its own sake is not one that we share.

At Project NIA, we agree with Jeanette Winterson who writes that: “Art can make a difference because it pulls people up short. It says, don’t accept things for their face value; you don’t have to go along with any of this; you can think for yourself.” So art has the power to disrupt and we want to disrupt our punishment culture. We believe in the power of art to help people develop critical thinking about the issues of the day. We believe that art helps us to imagine a different future for ourselves and for the world.

Our collaborations with artists over the past decade have been both intentional and organic. We have put out calls for contributions of art to educate our community members about the ravages of criminalization and we have reached out to our artist friends to support particular campaigns or projects. We have collaborated with artists to create dozens of publications. You can view some of the results from our collaborations below.

In October 2020, Project NIA launched our first Artist in Residence program. Through the residency, an artist will collaborate with us to explore a specific topic and to create abolitionist art.

We are excited to announce that Rachel Wallis is our first artist in residence. The residency which provides the artist with $15,000 began on October 1st. Rachel Wallis is an activist who uses art in organizing work, and an artist who engages in issues of racial and social justice. As a community taught textile artist, her work spans the divide between fine art and craft. She believes that traditional textile techniques, particularly quilting, can provide a fertile platform for creating dialogue and understanding around complex ideas and issues.

Quilting has a rich history in diverse communities in the US. For generations quilting has created spaces for women to build community, support each other, and organize. Rachel believes that community quilts allow us to tackle overwhelming subjects, like the legacy of violence by the Chicago Police Department, the impact of incarceration on families, or the relationship between the global slave trade and the textile industry. The slow process of stitching occupies our hands and slows our minds. It forces us to travel from the general to the particular. The meditative act of embroidering a name or a place engenders a kind of radical empathy.

Rachel Wallis received an MA in Art and Social Engagement at Moore College of Art and Design. She has been an artist in residence at A Studio in the Woods, and the School of the Art Institute Homan Square residency. She has taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Hyde Park Art Center, Lillstreet Art Center, the Chicago Public Library, Coffee Creek Correctional Center, Cook County Jail, and Sew to Speak.

You can view some of Rachel’s work at her website and on Instagram at radicalquilter.

Please join us in congratulating Rachel. We look forward to sharing the work that she creates in collaboration with us next year.

History is replete with examples of artists who have come together to support activist and organizing efforts. One such example can be found in the Poster Workshop, a British printmaking collective that helped to “turn activists’ slogans into art statements” in the 1960s. We at Project NIA are excited to partner with artists to translate our vision of a world without prisons into enduring pieces of socially-engaged art.

Written by Mariame Kaba, Founder and Director of Project NIA.

Art against incarceration