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Exploring Perspectives Of Incarceration Through Art

New Staff Writer Anna Eggers attended a book talk by Nicole Fleetwood about her new book Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration sponsored by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Art as a means to revolutionize certain movements is not a new idea, but when applied to the issue of mass incarceration there have been some difficulties along the way. Nicole Fleetwood, writer of Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration and professor of American Studies and Art History at Rutgers University spoke of the importance of art in the mental health of those in prison, and in supporting those working towards the abolishment of mass incarceration during a talk about her book with Elizabeth Hinton who also writes about issues regarding mass incarceration this past Monday. 

This event came just days after Fleetwood’s curated exhibition of the same name premiered Thursday at MoMA PS1, showcasing the artwork of more than 35 artists who have experienced personal incarceration or incarceration of loved ones, many of whom are also featured within her book. 

As Fleetwood explains while introducing herself, Marking Time serves as an exploration into the different ways of expression for those affected by mass incarceration. The spark that led Fleetwood to delve into this issue was “the permanent stigma on imprisoned people and their families” she experienced first-hand after the incarceration of her cousin Allen, who was in prison for 21 years, and other members of her family. 

She began to question if there could be something more to represent how it felt for Allen and her family to be isolated in this way. “We had no words to describe the utter devastation, the despair,” Fleetwood shared as she began to discuss artworks that would be put on display in the visiting room. These artworks, to her, showed “a compulsion to make, to create, and to produce meaning under brutal and austere circumstances.” A sentiment she felt compelled to explore further.

Hinton began to ask questions to dive into Fleetwood’s work deeper, beginning with how Fleetwood made connections with artists in prison while researching for and creating this book. She described an article she wrote trying to articulate the emotions that she felt when she would walk with Allen to a backdrop to take a photo while he was in prison. She explained how this article opened her up to others who had similar experiences and also been collecting artwork from prisons that helped describe the pain and devastation that mass incarceration causes. 

They moved forward and discussed the importance of this work in the grand ideas of black radical tradition and freedom struggles. Fleetwood introduced a realization she made that “prisons are all about regulating what we see,” as she described Ronnie Goodman’s self-portrait within his prison’s painting studio. He painted the walls around him not as he saw them but rather as he wished to see them, which Fleetwood compared to actively controlling the space around him in which he didn’t inherently have control.

Fleetwood went on to explain how museums historically have been a place of both exclusion towards and the exploitation of black artists. She explained that “prisons are all about the types of populations we dehumanize, who we do value, but also that we want to extract value from,” highlighting the intelligence and radicalization that incarcerated people possess. Many artworks that come from prison aren’t formed by radical thought from thinkers outside of prison but rather inform the thoughts of those who don’t have the same experiences of incarceration. 

A concept that was especially thought-provoking was the idea of repurposing state property. Fleetwood stated that “it’s literally taking state property and doing something else with it, while also being defined as state property,” which enhances the meaning behind traditional artwork but also the prevalence of prison tattoos. In a way, the limitations of this same space which is supposed to hold prisoners captive can become the way they escape and push the boundaries of their captivity. 

As the conversation shifted towards harsher experiences within prisons, Fleetwood explained the shocking reality that many people who live within solitary confinement in prison are not there as a punishment. Rather, solitary confinement is used to prevent issues that might be caused by a person with radical ideas being within the large prison population or someone who is in an adult prison despite being under 18. 

Now, during the time of COVID, Fleetwood has seen that solitary confinement is being treated as a way to keep people safe despite the ineffectuality of this in a system that doesn’t properly supply cleaning supplies or other necessities during a pandemic. A big concern for Fleetwood is how support and awareness about prisons and their treatment of COVID have steadily declined since the beginning of the pandemic, and now, “states have stopped counting. Because they don’t want to be accountable for the mass sickness and deaths.” 

As the talk closes out, Fleetwood reminds us that although many people would assume that major radical artistic evaluations of freedom aren’t created in prison, the reality is quite often the opposite. Prisons are spaces of major emotional hardship, and Fleetwood’s view of artwork highlights the importance of including incarcerated voices in the journey towards freedom. 

This conversation is especially enlightening considering the recent sentiment in my own social circles of abolishing the police and prison systems rather than striving for reform. The ultimate result of imprisonment shown through Fleetwood’s curated works and conversation is utter devastation––a pain which I agree needs to be condemned. As we cherish and uplift the voices of those who have suffered at the hands of our unjust carceral system, I feel it equally necessary to work towards a conversation where no one talks about pain because of its nonexistence rather than forced silence. 

Fleetwood’s author talk is available to view retroactively on the Schomburg Center’s Literary Festival website, along with other talks past and future which are on other topics within the African diaspora. You can also find Marking Time at the Schomburg Shop if you’re interested in viewing these important pieces of art curated by Fleetwood.

Nicole Fleetwood and Elizabeth Hinton via the zoom recording

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