Over the Fourth of July weekend, the number of homicides in Chicago surpassed 200 for the year to date. Of these victims, a high percentage were children and teenagers, caught in the crossfire of gang violence. The statistics are horrifying, and yet behind every number is a child who once had dreams and ambitions. Kudos, then, to Chicago artist Cheryl Pope whose art brings to the fore the human element of gun violence that plagues our city. “Just Yell,” her first solo exhibition at moniquemeloche gallery, represents socially conscious art at its best. Pope’s works are provocative without being exploitative; emotionally engaging without being melodramatic; thoughtful and studied without being overintellectualized
In this compact show of eight works, she displays everyday objects associated with schools—a display case, a varsity patch, a yearbook, a pair of cheerleading megaphones—and manipulates them into works of art that call attention to the gun violence epidemic among our city’s youth. Several of the works in the show are collaborations with students from local high schools.
The title, “Just Yell,” is inspired by cheerleaders, originally called “yellers.” The act of yelling, within the context of extracurricular sports, implies supporting the team and rallying the crowd to a common cause. Here, Pope uses yelling/cheering as a device for being heard, a metaphor for voicing opposition and a tactic for overcoming apathy. This is best reflected in her video piece K-I-D-S (2013), in which a local student and artistic collaborator recite a cheer encouraging the support of our city’s kids in the face of gun violence. K-I-D-S captures the innocence of its young subject, while expressing the urgency of the problem at hand.
Other “Just Yell” performance pieces were presented live during the exhibition’s opening reception, including Drive by in 5 Acts (2013), in which a parade of lowriders drove gallery visitors through Humboldt Park (infamous Latin Kings territory) as teenage poets recited compositions to the cars’ occupants. On the sidewalk in front of the gallery, students from Chicago’s Phoenix Military Academy yelled out a series of cheers condemning gun violence.
But Pope’s most powerful works are the quietest. Remember to Remember (2013) serves as both memorial and a silent protest. For this work, Pope took a wall-mounted display case that you might find in a high school hallway and filled it with brass tags, each inscribed with the name of a student who has been gunned down in the past two years. Interspersed among these nameplates are snippets of student poetry, including writings by Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old girl who was killed just days after marching in President Obama’s inauguration parade. Remember to Remember is both poignant and troubling. It effectively humanizes the victims but also leaves space for the inclusion of more names of children yet to be killed.
Many Chicago residents—myself included—have felt largely separated from the violence, both physically and emotionally. Will Pope’s (and her students’) yelling jar us out of our complacency? This exhibition is a valiant effort and a first step in helping raise awareness. The next steps are up to us.