Lifesaving and Abolitionism: Shifting the Frame on Prison Art

Tameca Cole, "Locked in a Dark Calm," 2016.

In March 2008, Ojore Lutalo received official denial of his request for release from solitary confinement at Trenton State Prison. In its appraisal of his situation, the prison review board wrote, “Your radical views and ability to influence others poses a threat to the orderly operations of the Institution.” In response, Lutalo made art. He pasted the complete document in a collage with political cartoons, photographs of himself, and text reading “POLITICAL PRISONERS,” “22 YEARS IN POLITICAL ISOLATION,” and “YOU CALL THIS A DEMOCRACY!” The collage, titled Being Persecuted for Political Thoughts (date unknown), recontextualizes the review board’s decision, indicting a disciplinary logic that values institutional order over human life. His work exposes isolation as a form of institutional reprisal for political prisoners, and documents the abuse of other inmates like Michelle Angelina, a transwoman locked in solitary to maintain order in the all-male prison. In scholar and curator Nicole Fleetwood’s new book Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, Lutalo is one of dozens of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated artists whose work channels a vision of mass incarceration as the product not of individual failure or wrongdoing, but of state violence masquerading as moral authority.

At its heart, Marking Time is an abolitionist text, arriving during the recent international surge of the Black Lives Matter movement with a picture of mass incarceration as the less visible, but always present counterpart to police brutality. Nicole Fleetwood framed her appeal as a long-overdue reassessment of prison art and the people who make it. She populated her book with more than eighty illustrations, mostly by incarcerated artists, and based her research on interviews with these artists, and her own experiences with family members in prison. While considering and critiquing the prison industrial complex as a structure of intimidation and control, she marks the ways in which prison art already contributes to US cultural production and memory-making through the proliferation of exhibitions featuring prison art and the already massive audience of family, friends, cellmates, guards, and others who collect it – not to mention incarcerated artists who have gone on to formal arts training. (Marking Time itself was slated to debut at MoMA PS1 in an eponymous exhibition postponed by the pandemic.)

Mark Loughney, “Pyrrhic Defeat: A Visual Study of Mass Incarceration,” 2014-present.

Fleetwood’s writing is caring  – and careful, eschewing discussions on guilt or innocence except where explicitly directed to do so by her subjects, through descriptions of the work and the processes of making it under constant surveillance and scrutiny. She brings together the ideas of prominent prison abolitionists – Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Dylan Rodriguez, Angela Davis, and Jackie Wang – with those of Black studies and visual culture scholars Tina Campt, Nicholas Mirzoeff, and Fred Moten, fluently integrating these ideas with the work and perspectives of the incarcerated themselves. Thoughtful and stylistically accessible, Marking Time is meant for a broad audience across the inmates’ families, the academy, and the artworld. But where other scholars have made the case for abolition through speculative frameworks, suggesting police and prisons are everywhere and affecting all of us, Fleetwood stays attentive to those who have to endure the actual prison system, such as Ojore Lutato.

Released in 2009, Lutalo exposes the dehumanizing conditions of isolation to contest what Fleetwood calls the “rehearsed state image of criminality.” She posits that images of arrest photos, mugshots, prison cells, barbed wire, and guard towers represent imprisonment as the proper, natural response to social and political conflict. As an example, she points to the prison identification photos collected by folklorist and fine art photographer Bruce Jackson in the 1970s. The subjects in Jackson’s collection have already spent time in prison and are wearing prison uniforms rather than street clothes – they are fixed to the status of criminal. As Black Lives Matter activism has repeatedly demonstrated in its criticism of rap-sheet reporting on victims of police violence, the rehearsed state image of criminality plays out in everyday life through reality shows, dramas, and news programs depicting them as criminals in order to justify police use-of-force. This image is therefore part of a broader scheme, which Fleetwood terms “carceral visuality.” It is the state’s power to “mark and isolate certain people as lawbreakers, criminals, and prisoners,” the legal and moral authority to rehearse this image of criminality. However, the very force of Marking Time is its account of incarcerated artists who refuse to be erased by this authority. Looking diligently at art produced under “the conditions of unfreedom,” Fleetwood provides a framework she calls “carceral aesthetics” to counter dominant views of art, culture, and race embedded in Western philosophy and political science.

Mary Enoch Elizabeth Baxter,
“Ain’t I a Woman” (video still), 2018.

The tension between “carceral visuality” and “carceral aesthetics” is central to understanding the co-construction of race, class, and gender in the US through criminality. That strain plays out starkly, for instance, in the contrast between the state-rehearsed image of Black women as “breeders of immorality and embodiments of criminality” and the actual emotional and physical labor of Black women wrapped up in the carceral system. For formerly incarcerated artist Mary Enoch Elizabeth Baxter (aka Isis tha Saviour), “labor” meant giving birth in shackles. Her rap videoAin’t I a Woman” (2018) is a recreation of this experience: she depicts herself being held down by guards while rapping in a cellblock, hands cuffed. Photos of her son appear in the lyrical breaks, connecting the pain and torment she experienced in prison to the free life it produced. In taking its title from Sojourner Truth’s 1851 speech, the video recognizes the reproductive labor of Black women under racial capitalism as the connective thread between slavery and mass incarceration. Beyond work like Baxter’s, Fleetwood also acknowledges the labor Black women do from the outside: gathering evidence, petitioning non-profits for help, adding money to commissaries, and writing letters to keep the incarcerated in community. Rather than lionizing these women or focusing on their individual acts of resilience, Fleetwood insists we understand them as improvising in a capricious system that shouldn’t exist.

While the carceral state may control the material, production, and circulation of prison art, as well as the lives of inmates and their families, imprisoned artists still resist exploitation, dehumanization, and even the carceral state itself, through art-making. Without any sense of hyperbole or preciousness, Marking Time frames art as a life-saving endeavor for many incarcerated artists. In the cases of both Ndume Olatushani’s colorful paintings of free Black people and Tyra Patterson’s three-dimensional, composite portraits of women in captivity, art made both artists visible to lawyers, prison abolitionists, celebrities, public officials, and gallerists willing to fight for (and win) their freedom. Olatushani married an anti-death penalty activist who helped secure his freedom after she saw his work at an exhibition organized by an anti-capital punishment organization. In a widely-circulated campaign, Patterson and her supporters made videos intended to humanize her in the interest of securing her release. The videos featured some of her work, as well as photographs and illustrations of her by other artists. Russell Craig made and sold art to other inmates, guards, and eventually established collectors because he had no other form of support in prison. After improving his craft to cope with imprisonment, he applied to and secured a spot at Bard College upon his release.

Russell Craig, “Self-Portrait,” 2016.

Much of the work in Marking Time has been smuggled out by family, friends, other inmates, and sympathetic guards, and the role of these supporters plays a key role in the book. Fleetwood describes the significant of prison family portraits in her own life as a way of acknowledging one of the book’s driving goals: to legitimize not only prison art and imprisoned artists, but, more broadly, the lived experiences of people engaged in the ongoing struggle against captivity in the prison industrial complex. For many relatives of incarcerated people, prison art, as well as photographs taken in prison, remain the only memorabilia they have of loved ones. But for Fleetwood, family photographs from prison at first caused only “sadness, grief, hopelessness, and longing.” Eventually, she forced herself to look at the photos, focusing on particular details like hairstyles and tattoos, rather than the conditions in which the photos were taken. Eventually, she decided to experiment with hanging the images. On the refrigerator, walls, and doors, the photographs began to evoke memories of visitations and inquiry into the meaning of a certain gaze or smile. With the help of a friend who is an art historian, Fleetwood began to see some of the images as aspirational, imagining a life outside of prison, and her sensitivity to the conditions behind the photos drove her research for the book.

In her conclusion, Fleetwood turns to an artist who, like herself, copes with the grief of having beloveds in prison. Sable Elyse Smith responds to her own father’s imprisonment and reflects on her life spent visiting him, hoping for his release. In BACKBEND (2019), Smith defamiliarized industrial and found materials to emphasize the everydayness and ubiquity of mass incarceration. A series of prison waiting-room tables welded together in an arc, the piece suggests the ways she and her father have to bend over backwards to appease the guards during visits. With its imposing size, aluminum frame, and royal blue aluminum surface, the sculpture  brings the feel of the institution with it. Where Fleetwood displays prison family portraits around her house to deal with her sense of loss, Smith can’t shake the grief and therefore translates personal experience into formal abstractions. In The Body Keeps the Score (2015), for instance, Smith deconstructed a photograph from a visit with her father in prison into a geometric abstraction of the color blue. It’s the color of her father’s prison uniform and a color Smith identifies with the sound of sadness, the sky, and the ocean.

Sable Elyse Smith, BACKBEND (installation view), 2019. Art Basel.

In Marking Time, Fleetwood draws from the Black Radical Tradition and acknowledges the privileges white inmates receive, but avoids essentializing, fetishizing, or identifying with her subjects in order to appeal to the expectations or empathic ambitions of her viewers – a degrading tendency in collections of prison art and literature. Instead, Fleetwood extends her methodology of care to her subjects, relatives, the many incarcerated people like them, and herself as the relative of incarcerated people. The artists in her collection draw life from their aesthetic practices within a larger network of relations, reflected even in the choice of cover, a detail from incarcerated artist Mark Loughney’s Pyrrhic Defeat: A Visual Study of Mass Incarceration (2014-present). In its totality, Pyrrhic Defeat is a collection of graphite drawings of fellow inmates indicating the magnitude of lives and labor absorbed into the penal system. In the individual portraits, Loughney respects the personality and personhood of the people most affected by incarceration. Like Marking Time, the image doesn’t appeal for us to see the humanity of incarcerated people, but makes a statement of their humanity as fact.

Tyra Patterson, “Moon,” 2015.

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