CHICAGO — The portraits that hang in the Center on Halsted's second-floor hallway are so bright and humanizing, it's not until you read who they portray that you feel the stinging undercurrent of tragedy.
The 27 people painted so vividly by filmmaker Lilly Wachowski were murdered in the past year, transgender victims who put names and faces to an epidemic of violence that disproportionately affects people of color and those who are transgender or gender non-conforming.
Among them is T.T. Saffore, a 28-year-old trans woman who was killed in West Garfield Park last year. Friends said Saffore was a hairdresser who was "full of joy."
No one has been arrested, and the case is still under investigation, police said Thursday.
Transgender woman T.T. Saffore was killed in a stabbing in West Garfield Park last year. On the right, director and artist Lilly Wachowski paints her portrait. [Gofundme/Lilly Wachowski]
In the days after Saffore's death, friends and dozens of other people in the trans community gathered to remember her outside the Broadway Youth Center. To draw attention to the unique dangers they face for being transgender, some blocked off the Belmont and Halsted intersection after the vigil.
Saffore is the only one from Chicago featured in Wachowski's "Say Our Names" exhibit, which opened in early June at Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted St., and will be on display for free until July 11.
Each of the 27 are placed along the wall — at different heights to show the subjects' varied statures — and seem to vibrate with the life given by Wachowski's thick brush strokes and bold colors.
The portraits and their color palette were meant to "offer a vibration of the subject's life and humanity so that the viewer would also be able to connect, to remember, and to honor," the victims, Wachowski said.
Their stories are also on display. There's Jazz Alford, the "sweet" college graduate who would cover Sunday shifts for her church-going co-workers with a cheerful, "Pray for me, too, chile!"
The "Say Our Names" exhibit will be at the Center on Halsted until July 11. [DNAinfo/Ariel Cheung]
A 16-year-old from Burlington, Iowa, who loved to sing and dance went by the names Kedarie or Kandicee Johnson. Shante Isaac was on the phone with her mother at the time of her murder.
Confronted with so many faces, both smiling and solemn, their deaths weigh heavy on the soul.
Wachowski, who together with sister Lana Wachowski has directed blockbusters like "The Matrix," "V for Vendetta" and the Netflix series "Sense8," said she began the portraits in July as "an outlet of the overwhelming emotion I was feeling in the relentless waves of mortal acts of violence against trans people."
Wachowski and her sister are both transgender women, and Lilly recalled how "with each headline, each murder, I felt wanting to connect, to remember, to honor."
The exhibit's name is an echo of the social movement centered around the #SayHerName hastag, which arose in 2015 to recognize black women killed by or after encounters with police — Sandra Bland of suburban Naperville and Chicago's Rekia Boyd among them.
Some have also used the hashtag or a modified version to highlight the deaths of transgender people of color.