Art and Activism: Formerly and Currently Incarcerated Artists Propelling Advocacy

Man stands in jail cell

When asked last about his recent online exhibition Painting for Justice in Prison, curator Rahsaan “New York” Thomas said,

“Seeing a story from an artist’s point of view is definitely a lens to look out of. I think the stories come out like a work of art. The way we put the stories together … we take something that people think of as ‘ugly’ or horrible or disregard and don’t think about it at all, and we put it in people's consciousness … That is something beautiful, you know? I think that is a work of art.”

Branden Terrel stands in his cell on June 8, 2017 in San Quentin, California
Photo by Ezra Shaw courtesy of Getty Images

This quote came from a more extended conversation between Thomas and art critic Jerry Saltz that aired on The Art Angle podcast in January 2021. The episode titled  “Can Art Help End the Era of Mass Incarceration?” investigates art’s relevance and impact in mass incarceration today.

 

The Art Angle hosted Thomas after curating an online exhibition of works from 12 formerly or currently incarcerated artists. During the interview, he reveals that “I'm not a professional curator. This was my first time curating anything, so I just went with my eye and what spoke to me. And I’ve long been a fan of several artists here at San Quentin …” San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, California, is where Thomas was sentenced to 55 years to life for second-degree murder. He has completed twenty years of his sentence.

 

One article, written in response to the online exhibition by writer and activist Zoé Samudzi distinguishes that “Replacing the institutional wall text describing each contribution is a biographical text written by the artist, allowing them to present their identities, ideas, and experiences, in their own words. This kind of autonomous self-presentation is an opportunity overwhelmingly refused to incarcerated people and communities affected by policing and other racist and classist carceral structures.”

Inmates listen to graduates of San Quentin Prison’s The Last Mile program. Photo by Michael Macor
San Francisco Chronicles via Getty Images
Jail yard
Image by Isabella Mendes

So, as over 2 million Americans are incarcerated today, where does art fit into the picture? How has including the voices of artists who experienced incarceration in the American legal system changed opportunities for these artists? Where have their messages made their mark?

 

After the San Quentin group show’s success, several other organizations began supporting current and formerly incarcerated artists through art initiatives.

 

Cory Silverstein and Joshua Pulman co-founded Silver Art Projects in 2018, offering free studio space and mentorship within the 4 World Trade Center for artists centered at the intersection of social justice and creative demonstration. Nearly a quarter of their residency spaces are now dedicated to artists who were once part of the U.S. prison system. This was done after Silver Art Projects received a grant from the Art for Justice Fund. “We are proud to support formerly incarcerated artists in the important work they do and look forward to welcoming our next cohort this year,” co-founder Joshua Pulman told ARTFIX Daily.

Even MoMA had an exhibition called Marking Time. the collection focused on uplifting the works of incarcerated people while also including works revolving around themes like material and emotional constraint. Taking place during the height of the pandemic, curator Dr. Nicole R. Fleetwood used the release of her book Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration as a way to provide platforms for artists to show their work, to be a megaphone for these social issues and providing these artists with the opportunity to take the floor for the conversation.


And finally, as artists are making their way into the “high art”world, “Formerly incarcerated artists are making waves in the collecting world, hoping to create pathways, and dignity, for their peers.”

Jail cell locked
Image by Ron Lach

It seems art during the age of mass incarceration has only just begun scratching the surface of an issue that runs deeper than a prison’s concrete walls. Podcasts such as The Art Angle use their platform to discuss the problems with mass incarceration in the U.S. prison system and how artists facilitate more conversations about the issue. In observed developments, organizations such as MoMA and Silver Art Projects became megaphones for the voices of incarcerated artists and those who are out of the prison system seeking mentorship and residency. In continuing these efforts, companies and organizations cultivate a new sense of awareness of the prison system as a whole.

Incarceratedly yours
Courtesy of Prison Renaissance
Rahsaan
Rahsan ‘New York’ Thomas

Organizations to check out

The Art for Justice Fund’s mission is artistic advocacy to end underlying racial discrimination and mass imprisonment. Their avenue of artistic activism draws attention to issues within the legal system, like cruel and unusual bail postings and prison sentences. Art for Redemption is a marketplace for artists incarcerated across the United States. Their platform provides opportunities for financial viability for incarcerated people, and their mission emphasizes art as a creative outlet for making successful transitions out of the prison system.

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