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WUWM's Teran Powell reports on race and ethnicity in southeastern Wisconsin.

Young Milwaukeeans Of Color Take Control Of Their Narratives Through Portrait Project

"See Me Because" art exhibition
Teran Powell
The "See Me Because" art exhibit runs through August 14 at Walker's Point Center for the Arts.

Young people in Milwaukee are using art to take control of their narratives through a new exhibition at Walker’s Point Center for the Arts.

It’s the third installment of the Milwaukee-based nonprofit Art Start’s annual portrait project, called "See Me Because." The exhibit features self-portraits of 10 high school-aged students of color.

Many of the stories reflect Milwaukee’s south side, Latino and immigrant communities. The show is Art Start’s first bilingual exhibition.

In Valeria Gonzalez’s self-portrait, she looks angelic in an all-white dress flowing behind her, posed holding her cello against a white background. Glowing white lines swirl around her, but she’s also floating above dark, black clouds.

Valeria Gonzalez with her portrait as part of the See Me Because exhibition at Walker's Point Center for the Arts.
Teran Powell
Valeria Gonzalez with her portrait as part of the See Me Because exhibition at Walker's Point Center for the Arts.

For Gonzalez, who is 18, the image represents growth. "Growing up, I was just always such in a dark place and so I used my music to get me out of that and that’s what it’s kinda showing is the dark shadows of my life and my feelings, and then me overcoming that with music," she explains

Gonzalez says the "See Me Because" exhibition shows to all of Milwaukee what young people here are capable of.

Johanna de los Santos, executive director of Art Start, says that’s what she enjoys most about the project — students have the freedom and space to tap into their own voice.

"Our young people, and specifically in Milwaukee, youth of color are complex, layered human beings. They are not one thing; they are not even two things. They are extremely complex human beings, and they get to be complex, and they get to be a lot of things all at once," she says.

Art Start’s portrait project gives young people a platform to explore their identities and take control of their narratives and how they want the want the world to see them.

Students were chosen through a partnership with the Casa Romero Renewal Centeron West Bruce Street.

Over the course of one year, they completed a series of workshops, interviews and photoshoots that helped them explore their identities. The students had the chance to collaborate with professional artists to help bring their visions to life.

Antonio Padilla says he wanted to depict his helpful nature in his portrait. So, he submitted an image of him leading a CPR class in Guatemala.

Antonio Padilla poses with a self-portrait of himself leading a CPR class in Guatemala.
Teran Powell
Antonio Padilla poses with a self-portrait of himself leading a CPR class in Guatemala.

"Basically, what I wanted to do was show how I can be caring and thoughtful to others," he says.

Padilla hopes to go into the medical field, and says the opportunity to work on this portrait project is good for young people.

"I think it shows that we are here to make a difference. I think we’re the future of this community here," he adds.

Chris Beltran’s self-portrait depicts him standing in a Milwaukee Bucks uniform, arms stretched out, palming a basketball in each hand. The phrases "Black Lives Matter" and "No Human Being Is Illegal" are printed on the balls.

Chris Beltrán poses with his self-portrait.
Teran Powell
Chris Beltrán poses with his self-portrait.

Chris Beltran says he wanted to show that there’s more to people than meets the eye and that people shouldn’t judge someone based on their own presumptions.

He uses NBA players as examples: "There’s more to them [than] just entertaining us when they play. Like when Giannis went to some of the BLM protests, a lot of people kinda just say that he’s supposed to be a basketball player and wasn’t expecting him to really do that and show his support."

Chris Beltran says he wants people who see his portrait to walk away thinking about how to be more open-minded and less judgmental. He adds that the portrait project is valuable to him and his peers because it lets them raise their voices when it seems like adults don’t want to hear what they have to say.

Casa Romero Renewal Center Youth Programs Director Carlos Beltran says it was awesome to see the students’ individual skills and talents come to light through the project.

He says he could tell that students took the assignment seriously.

"Some of them, it was like an experience they’d been through or something that they identify with, something that they’re good at, something that’s special to them, so I think you just see a lot of pride and ownership of the finished product."

The "See Me Because" exhibition is on display at the Walker’s Point Center for the Arts until August 14.

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Teran is WUWM's race & ethnicity reporter.
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