Torture mask project at Bowen High School

I teach art at Bowen High School, the Alma Mater of white Chicago police commander Jon Burge, whose officers tortured false confessions out of over 100 African-American men over a span of 25 years. Bowen is now a predominantly African-American high school on the southeast side, near Burge’s infamous Area Two station. Our Spring 2010 project dealing with Burge’s legacy arose out of a collaboration with the phenomenal artist and activist Laurie Jo Reynolds, of the prison reform group Tamms Year Ten. Augmenting prison jumpsuits was her idea, and I ran with it, having my Art 1 students embroider and applique patches representing their response to the Jon Burge legacy.

Burge torture victim and anti-torture activist Mark Clement came to speak to my classes. We read articles about the many tortured confessions under Burge’s command and discussed police brutality and excess more generally. Clement, Reynolds, and members of Tamms Year Ten invited us to a “Jail Jon Burge” rally at Chicago City Hall on May 24, 2010, the first day of Burge’s perjury trial, at which activists wore the jumpsuits my students had adorned with words and images expressing their outrage at Burge’s crimes and the police-state culture that protected and encouraged his violence.

My Art 2 classes worked on another Burge project this year, creating torture masks, an idea sparked by Laurie Jo’s partner and collaborator Scott MacFarland. Scott explained that in medieval Europe, masks were often worn by both torturer and victim, to dehumanize them both and thereby encourage the britality of the former and the terror of the latter. The class learned more about the history of masks to evoke both absurdity and fear, in both religious ritual and theater, and we read about and discussed some details of the Burge history, such as his background as a military police officer in Vietnam—relating this to ongoing and current military and intelligence interrogation protocols—and a member of a white supremacist group, and illustrating the timeline of the tortured confession of Eric Caine, another black man Burge put in prison who recently won exoneration and release.

For our project, every student designed and constructed two paper-mache masks: one to represent the torturer, and one to represent the victim. Built over a bulky, fully three-dimensional structure, the results were compelling—some faces turning out clownish and uncanny, some animalistic and demonic, some human and vulnerable. Some of the masks went on display in March 2012 at the Southside Hub of Production (also known as SHoP) in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, as part of a group show called “This House Is Not A Home.”

Since we had recently finished another large project and had an extended period for our May 31 final exams, senior students in my Art 2 classes could again illustrate either Eric Caine’s story, or a pair of torture masks inspired by the similarly horrific story of Darrell Roberts. We hung up the student drawings, some accompanied with writing, and discussed the issues raised by the recent and local torture history we had touched on. I facilitated by passing out a list of questions that students could answer, many focusing on the motivations and circumstances that led to the crimes in Area Two, and AREA Advisory Board member Gabrielle Toth took notes and made valuable contributions to the conversation.

Students articulated a worldview, troubled but nuanced, that would be familiar in a Chicago minority neighborhood in any number of moments in history.  “They stop you for anything,” one said. “They could be dirty cops. Just because you got attitude they can plant stuff on you. They can handcuff you, they can choke you… Just because you have a badge, you can’t do anything you want.” “They’ll help you if you need them,” countered another. “They still keep peace. When the cops are around, people move around.” In discussing resistance, Gabrielle pointed out that several students depicted the moment in Eric Caine’s story when a tortured suspect resisted by carving a confession of his false accusation of Caine into a seat in the police station. We also talked about the massive demographic shifts, both racial and economic, that swept South Chicago over the last fifty years, the practical and emotional motivations for torture, and the ways in which masks provide a potent metaphor for a society of segregated victimization. On the whole, it was a powerful and satisfying note on which to end the school year.