Project allows minority youths to show their true selves through art

People look at artwork hanging on the walls of a gallery.

Dominique Smith stood before a photograph on the wall of the INOVA Gallery. In it, a young man in a Spider-Man suit shoots webs to skyscrapers, soaring over the streets of New York City. His face, uncovered, beams.

“I see freedom,” said Smith. “Freedom to be who he wants to be.”

The portrait of the teen, identified only as Javon, is part of gallery of photo illustrations of minority youths called “See Me Because: The Art Start Portrait Project.” The portraits show the teens not in the often difficult setting of their everyday lives, but rather how they want the world to see them. There are superheroes and nurses, entertainment stars and community leaders.

The UWM Institute of Visual Arts recently hosted the exhibit of 18 Milwaukee and New York City youths at the Kenilworth Gallery East INOVA Gallery. The project is in partnership with Milwaukee Public Schools’ Department of Black and Latino Male Achievement and Turnaround Arts.

Several works of art hang from a wall.
In their art, the youths are community leaders, entertainment stars, health professionals and more. (UWM Photo/Elora Hennessey)

Kim Cosier, professor of art education at UWM, worked with Art Start to bring the project to the Kenilworth Gallery. “It’s incredible to see it come together,” said Cosier. “This is an example of how we are building together with communities.”

Art Start is a nationally recognized program that has earned accolades for its groundbreaking work creating a platform for at-risk youth to channel their creativity through visual art. The “See Me Because” project offers minority youths the opportunity to portray the complex narratives about their identities, asking the world to see them for how they choose to be seen.

Johanna De Los Santos, executive director of Art Start, said that in her 20-plus years of teaching youth arts, she’s never been more excited to help these young people represent themselves.

“The courage that these young men use to display themselves, it leaves me inspired,” said De Los Santos. “I’m in awe of the big risks that they took.”

‘We cannot be dream killers’

The exhibit’s opening night drew people from many walks of life. They saw powerful images of young men and women as professionals assisting others in need.

“We have to stop telling them what they can’t do,” said LaNelle Ramey, director of the Department of Black and Latino Male Achievement at Milwaukee Public Schools. “We have to encourage them and their dreams. We cannot be dream killers.”

Visitors seemed deeply affected by the images. Many took time to speak to the young artists or listen to the accompanying videos. Each time, the visitor seemed to walk away changed.

“To see these young black and brown boys doing something positive and showcase their work, it’s powerful,” said Shannon Reed, a portfolio manager at United Way and a leader in the community. “This showcases so many different individuals that have a story to tell, and to do it through visual art, it speaks to you.”

‘Everybody has dreams. Support us.’

Visitors and artists spoke quietly about the art.  A DJ played rap and R&B. There was talk of community and family and a change in Milwaukee.

“I’m proud to be a part of this,” said Dajon Moore, an artist at the event. “Everybody has dreams. Support us.”

Visitors said the exhibit left them with messages of positivity, love and hope for change in the community.

“It’s touching to see the community’s response as these young men share their vision of themselves in a positive way,” said Sergio Muniz.

Latrelle Johnson chose to use his visual image of himself as a leader in his community surrounded by people of all races. He said that wanted to show that we are all the same and that we can bring unity to the world together.

“Community is not just a block,” said Devonta Hynes, another artist with his work on display. “It’s the world, and we have the power to change the world with each other.”

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