Artists with family members behind bars get creative about opening our eyes to what life’s really like for those trapped in America’s epidemic of imprisonment.
After Googling his estranged father and discovering dozens of currently or formerly incarcerated men with the exact same first and last name, Titus Kaphar, an artist based in New Haven, Connecticut, created a series of paintings called “The Jerome Project.” He painted tar-covered mug shots of these men in the style of Byzantine holy portraits, specifically those depicting Saint Jerome. Gold-leaf paint covers portions of their faces in correlation to the length of their prison sentences.
Meanwhile, artist Hank Willis Thomas and John Jay College professor Dr. Baz Dreisinger recently collaborated on the travelling installation The Writing on the Wall, a room-sized take on modern hieroglyphics made from essays, poems, letters, stories, diagrams and notes written by prisoners around the world. Dr. Dreisinger collected the hand-written and typed pieces during her years teaching in U.S. and international prisons, in the context of both the Prison-to-College Pipeline program she founded at John Jay and researching her forthcoming book Incarceration Nations: Journeying to Justice in Prisons Around the World.
In a different medium, a recent video by artist Molly Crabapple and the Equal Justice Initiative traces how slavery paved the way for the current system of mass incarceration.
While the complexities of mass incarceration are many, a myriad of American artists are examining the flaws and how they can be fixed, at a time when issues around inequities in the criminal justice system are reaching the mainstream stage. At a recent White House event called “Arts & Innovation: Prison Reform and Reentry in the 21st Century,” artists discussed their potential role in transforming the criminal justice system and reentry process.
Funding for artists focused on the issue is on the rise as well. The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation is offering grants of up to $100,000 to artists for projects addressing issues of mass incarceration in the United States. “One in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime,” the foundation asserted in a statement. “This constitutes an epidemic.”
Racial and economic disparities that pervade the U.S. criminal justice system have created a disturbing set of facts: African-American males are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males. The issue is urgent, these artists say. Telling and showing the stories around mass incarceration through art can capture attention in ways that policy papers and D.C.-wonk-talk can’t. This is the sound of their collective voice.
For many of them, the issue is personal. New York-based artists Duron Jackson and Sable Smith are inextricably linked to the issue. Each has a family member entangled with the criminal justice system. Smith’s father is in prison on murder and drug charges while Jackson’s brother spent years cycling in and out for a string of minor offenses. Both are using that personal connection to make art that forces viewers to consider the cycle of mass incarceration in this country, and what it’s doing not only to the imprisoned, but to those who love them.
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Writer and interdisciplinary artist Sable Elyse Smith recalls the day her mother broke the news that her father was going to prison, but the details are fuzzy. Prior to her father being arrested, the family moved around the Southern California area a lot but at the time, Smith didn’t know that it was because her father was averting the authorities. For children, Smith says, things like this just seem normal. Her father is now 57 and serving a life sentence for drug and murder charges.
“My father has been in prison since I was ten years old so it feels like the bulk of our relationship has been mediated through this narrative of prison and incarceration,” Smith says.
“We had a good relationship during my elementary school years,” she continues. “Me and my father had a lot of fun together. [We would] play games, go to the park, go to arcades, normal childhood stuff.”
Somewhere along the way to becoming an adult, Smith says she stopped writing letters to her father. It wasn’t a conscious decision, just “ebb and flow” as she recalls. “There was something inauthentic and lacking in trying to communicate in that way.”
But visits to him in prison were regular. Conversations were never about his crime or why he took that path or why he did what he did.
“It’s just about being there and hanging out,” she says. “The visitation area feels sacred because it’s so short and so limited. I’ve never probed about the circumstances that got him there. And that feels important for me to maintain.”
When she visits him today, Smith and her father discuss her artwork, which reenacts contested moments of police confrontation, imprisonment and her own memories. “He adds his insights,” she says. “Even now, my father and I have a conversation where I’m interested in having his voice more present in my work. While it’s my narrative, it’s also his narrative.”
Smith says a lot of what seemed normal during her childhood has come into focus in what she calls “a slow sharpening of an image” — realizations about why they moved around so much, why she went to so many different schools.
Smith’s work can be simultaneously personal and abstract. A mixed-media work made of metal/vinyl and aluminum on signboard at first looks like standard signage you might see at a laundromat or bodega. But the words are jarring: “My father was a drug dealer and loved me.”
“That part of my biography isn’t necessarily for the viewer to know,” she says. “It becomes about any father — what demographic are we talking about? Who’s father are we talking about?”
Through video, sculpture, images and text, Smith tackles issues of trauma, personal displacement and the struggle to find justice, both her own and that of society as a whole. With great vulnerability, her work questions what it means to witness the ills of society.
Smith has been thinking about the color blue a lot in her practice, recalling that the visitation rooms where she saw her father were usually painted blue. “According to the prison, these blue murals depicting oceanic or tropical scenes were meant to convey solace and freedom where an inmate and their family member can share an intimate moment,” she says. “But that felt completely false to me. Those murals are painted by inmates but they aren’t paid for their work. And you have to pay for the Polaroid if you take a picture in front of the murals.”
Smith, whose studio is in the South Bronx, says these everyday subtleties and nuances of the prison system add up to trauma and stress for the inmates. Blue is Ubiquitous and Forbidden was the title of her recent exhibition at Soho20 Gallery, focusing on corporeal manifestations of trauma and stress.
Smith came to visual and performance art through writing and filmmaking, finding that performance works can spotlight issues “in a more immediate way.”
“This is the sound of my voice,” Smith booms. It’s Friday night, in a darkened basement in Chelsea. The performance space of Skowhegan art school — where Smith is an alum — is jam-packed with artists, activists and other interested parties, but starkly quiet.
“This is the sound of my voice,” she repeats, louder and more forceful this time. Smith and her collaborators are staging a performance reenacting the deaths of three people recently killed by the police — Eric Garner, Walter Scott and Freddie Gray — that call into question the use of excessive force, conflicting testimonies and police brutality.
The room seems to freeze. The prolonged silence is uncomfortable. Smith’s collaborator Melanie Crean reads aloud from multiple news sources reporting, questioning the facts of each case. Another collaborator pulls an audience member from the sideline and puts his arm around his neck, slowly placing him on the ground to reenact an attempted arrest.
“Did it happen like this? Was he reaching for a gun? Was he resisting?” — all questions the world has been asking. Nobody knows for sure.
This performance is a part of a larger collaborative project titled Mirror/Echo/Tilt that Smith is working on with Shaun Leonardo, Crean and a group of formerly incarcerated people as part of an eight-week residency at The Point, an arts organization in the South Bronx. The project recently received a major grant from Creative Capital, an organization that supports artist projects.
“This is the sound of my voice forces you to acknowledge me as a person, forces you to consider the voice of the individuals murdered,” she says. “Consider the utterance ‘I can’t breathe.’ Consider other speech acts. The voice cuts through the tension, complicates the narrative.”
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Duron Jackson’s focus on issues of mass incarceration began while he was mostly estranged from his younger brother, who’d been in and out of jail since the two were teens. And then one day, Jackson was eating lunch with a group of friends at the vegetarian mainstay Dojo in the East Village. They had a window seat, and he saw his brother walk by.
“He didn’t exactly look homeless,” Jackson says. “But he looked like he just hadn’t been home. In a really long time.” Jackson ran out of the restaurant, called after his brother, hurrying to catch up to him.
“At this point he had exhausted his chances with me and my family. Stupid stuff had become a cycle,” says Jackson. “The more I talked to him, the more I started feeling sympathetic and reaching out to him more and realizing that this wasn’t just happening to him, but to the community as a whole.”
The two brothers grew up between Harlem and a middle-class enclave in Long Island. The 1980s crack-era epidemic made Long Island seem like a respite from the inner city but his brother still managed to find trouble: doing drugs, loitering, being in places he shouldn’t be and getting caught, which started a long chain of systematic problems facing many young African-American men.
The story is all-too-common. Jackson’s brother was neither a felon nor a violent criminal. He has never been in a high-security correctional facility. Like so many others, he got caught in a cycle of quality-of-life crimes: vagrancy, smoking marijuana, drinking beer in the park, jumping turnstiles, things that keep a huge population of men and women in the system.
By the time they ran into each other in the East Village that day, Jackson’s brother had spent years moving in and out of the corrections system for a series of minor charges, and they had been out of touch for years. Jackson says he always knew that African-Americans arrested for minor crimes often remain marginalized. But there it stood right in front of him. His brother was having a tough time getting back on track, struggling to re-enter society. Each time he was released, he found himself unable to establish self-sufficiency. Job applications inquired, “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?”
“This small moment with my brother created a larger ‘a-ha’ moment with my work as an artist,” says Jackson, who has a wide smile and elegant manner. “My work is founded on research, but having that personal connection has helped me understand the bigger picture as it related to my brother and our family.”
Since that day, Jackson’s art has increasingly focused on the prison industrial complex. He says he hopes to draw a parallel between the mass incarceration of black men now and the enslavement of black people in the past.
“A massive population is being displaced from their community and into warehouses for black and brown bodies,” Jackson says. “Historically there’s been an ongoing misuse of the black body — the black male body specifically. In creating this work, I’m hoping to bring to light that these places exist. And these people exist that we have completely forgotten about.”
Jackson is perhaps best known for his “BlackBoard” series, which was shown at The Brooklyn Museum’s Raw/Cooked exhibition in 2013. Shortly after Google Earth became available to the public, Jackson searched it for aerial views of prisons, and noticed their very distinct architecture. “Up ‘til then,” he says, “in my figurative work, I was focused on how these bodies were ‘warehoused’ and forced to navigate these unique spaces that are created for this very specific thing.”
Jackson started using aerial views of prison complexes as a point of reference, using graphite on clayboard and panel to demarcate and outline their abstracted shapes.
He also created a video titled “Haze: Gladiator School” a one-channel video installation looping a 41-second clip of surveillance footage found on YouTube. The raw, grainy film shows a corrections officer and an inmate fighting inside a prison. The title suggests that the U.S. prison system has ceased rehabilitating inmates but instead now creates or trains criminals to survive behind bars as slaves were trained during the height of the Roman Empire to be gladiators.
“It’s about how the system actually creates better criminals, instead of rehabilitant inmates. The cycles of ‘street-to-prison-to-street,’” Jackson says. “The video is a very short loop — less than a minute — but it seems like a continuous struggle.”
Jackson likes to show the video inside of a constructed hallway, asking the viewer to step in and look as though firsthand witnessing. “It’s implicating the viewer as a consumer of violence,” he says. “It’s almost like rubbernecking a car crash. You can’t help but watch it. These fights are part of American culture and we the viewer play a part in consuming these images.”
Jackson says that he didn’t used to think of his art as activism, but that’s started to change.
“My brother, and also my family, is just a small part of a larger story,” he says. “I think about my own family and how we had to deal with my brother’s incarceration. As a man of color, I really think about myself. I could walk out on the street as a black man and one conversation with a police officer could go wrong in a millisecond. I think about how lucky I’ve been.”
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Vikki Tobak is a journalist and public art curator based in Washington, D.C. Hailing from Detroit, she is a former television network news producer and reporter for CNN and covered culture and music for Paper Magazine. Her writing has appeared in The Detroit News, Vibe, I-D, CBS MarketWatch, Eyes Towards The Dove and more. Follow her on Twitter @vtobak
Rodolfo Diaz is a freelance photographer whose work focuses on individuals of lower economic status, victims of social inequality, and the persistent evolvement of urbanization. See more of his work at rodolfo-diaz.tumblr.com and follow him on Twitter @rudiediaz.