Art Takes on the Prison System

This Land is Our Land aka Justice, Tasha Dougé, 2016, Synthetic hair, chicken wire, cotton, thread, 3’ x 5’, NFS. Photo courtesy of Bronx Art Space.

State Property, an exhibit spread across 3 locations in the Bronx, will force you to rethink everything you thought you knew about life behind bars.  While its focus is on prison labor, the show also confronts the issues of mass incarceration and solitary confinement. Many of the artists have work in all three venues, and I encourage you to visit them all.

I started at the Bronx Art Space, whose small but thought-provoking exhibit will make you ask, every time you see a “Made in the U.S.A” label, where exactly the item was made. 

At the entrance you’ll find Tasha Dougé’s This Land is Our Land, aka Justice (photo at the top of this post), a rendering of the American flag in synthetic hair, chicken wire, cotton and thread.  In the accompanying text, Dougé speaks of the contributions made to the American economy over the centuries by people of African descent (especially through the labor of enslaved Africans).  She further points out how today, many people of color are in private prisons and deportation centers, where they  provide cheap labor for US firms.  Even though the incarcerated are learning a trade, they can’t use their skills when they leave jail, because companies don’t want to hire people with felony convictions.  It’s no surprise that we have high rates of recidivism.

installation by Incarcerated Nation

Along one wall is an installation by Incarcerated Nation, featuring a chart listing several American corporations, including Mc Donald’s, Victoria’s Secrets and Starbucks, whose products have been made using  prison labor (sometimes through a subcontractor).  The exhibit informs us that many ex-prisoners are unable to get jobs at the companies whose wares they made when they were in jail, because of their felony convictions.  Also in this installation, you’ll find the outline of a solitary cell on the floor, and a virtual reality headset that lets you experience solitary confinement.

Pushed to Prison, Natalie Collette Wood, 2017, acrylic, spray paint and enamel on canvas

Natalie Collette Wood’s piece, Pushed to Prison, is a visceral commentary on how our schools fail to give kids the tools they need to succeed in life – one of the biggest problems affecting prison populations is the rate of illiteracy.  Besides the visual punch, the fact that the artist is an art teacher in public schools adds to its potency. 

There’s more to see in this exhibit, including Emma Lee’s outta sight, outta mind composition note book, which invites viewers to write their responses to various prompts such as “When is a debt paid to society?”  “Should prisoners have rights?” and “Justice for all.”

Bronx Art Space  is also having screenings and discussions – you can find more information here.  Their exhibit continues until October 21st.  Bronx Art Space is located at 305 East 140th Street in the Bronx.

Swing Space is a raw storefront space on the corner of Grand Concourse and 162nd Street.  The focus of this exhibit is solitary confinement and how it affects both prisoners and their families. 

Jumpsuit (Swing Space)

The most vivid invocation of this theme is the orange prison jumpsuit.  There are three,  one inscribed with the name of Kalief Browder, who spent three years in Riker’s Island – mostly in solitary confinement – without being convicted of a crime.  Accused of  stealing a back pack when he was 16, Browder was sent to jail when his family couldn’t make his $3,000 bail.  After his release, Browder experienced mental health issues, and in 2015, he committed suicide at age 22.

Melt, Five Mualimm-ak, 2009, charcoal

You’ll find three charcoal portraits by Five Mualimm-ak, who served 12 years in prison on a weapons charge, 5 of them in solitary confinement.  He has subsequently become an activist against solitary and mass incarceration.  When you look at the portraits, be sure to read the stories next to them. This one is a portrait of Melt, an immigrant from Fujian Province, China.  Because he had a tattoo, the authorities deemed him a gang member (even though the tattoo said  Love & Peace in Chinese characters), and he was confined to solitary.   

Paradox of Violence #5, Jennie West, oil on canvas

At first glance, you might think Jenny West’s oil painting is one of flowers, but it actually is a rendering of bullet holes.  For West, there’s an intense force that comes from violence, and she tries to capture that transformative energy in her art.

The show also includes two videos.  In the back, off the main area is Duran Jackson’s video Haze a looping a 41-second clip of surveillance footage found on YouTube, showing a corrections officer and an inmate fighting inside a prison. There’s also a video by Solitary Watch, of photos created in response to requests by prisoners in solitary confinement; the images range from seascapes, to animals, to religious images to current views of their old neighborhoods.

The exhibit at Swing Space, 900 Grand Concourse (at 162nd Street), is up until November 20th.

The Andrew Freedman Home  hosts the largest of the three shows, and it has more of a fine art focus.   

Fred Sanford (Redd Foxx)/Freddy Gray urn, Roberto Lugo, ceramic, China paint, lustre

Robert Lugo calls himself a ghetto potter. He was a self-taught artist until his mid-twenties, when he received his BFA from the Kansas City Art Institute; in 2014, he finished the MFA program at Pennsylvania State University. 

He’s created this fabulous ceramic urn, juxtaposing an image of Freddie Gray (who died at the age of 25 in police custody in Baltimore in 2015), with that of Fred Sanford (the TV character played by the late comedian Redd Foxx).

The Completely from Scratch Steer to Sirloin Cookbook, Nava Atlas, 2012, archival inkjet printed on rag paper

Nava Atlas looks at the industrial prison complex through the prism of food.  She has mashed up a 1931 USDA guide to slaughtering steer with a 1969 Better Homes and Gardens meat cookbook, noting that prisoners are making up more of the labor in slaughter houses, and wondering if they are forced to do this kind of work, or if they can refuse. She’s not the only one who wants to know.

Cell Game, Pamela Talese, 2014 mixed media

For Pamela Talese, “a board game seems an appropriate expression for the US System of Corrections”, and so she’s created Cell Game.  In the accompanying statement, she notes that the US has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, and that state and local governments are incurring huge debts to build prisons or to have them run by private entities, with no concurrent benefits to society.   Around the board are squares with facts about prison life and the prison industry.  Like typical board games, Cell Game has cards that tell you how you can move; Cell Game‘s are orange and have instructions like “CCA takes over your prison: reduces food intake by 20%: BACK 2 SPACES” or “The NACCP takes up your case & gives you hope:  AHEAD 4 SPACES.”

Reflections of our (inner) Societies, Alice Mizrachi, 2017, assemblage

I would have liked to know more about this assemblage by Alice Mizrachi, as it is quite different from her usual murals…

There’s much more to see:  The exhibit continues at the Andrew Freedman Home,  which is at 1125 Grand Concourse (165th Street) the Bronx,  until November 20th. 

If you can, see all three exhibits – if not, be sure to see at least one. 

Leave a Reply

* required fields