Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Activism and Art Team Up to Abolish Mass Incarceration

The exhibition was conceived four years ago by Herman Gray, UC Santa Cruz professor of sociology, and Rachel Nelson, interim director of the Institute of the Arts and Sciences. During a discussion about the emergence of policing and prison reform issues in contemporary art, Gray and Nelson realized that when art and activism join forces, something extraordinarily powerful can occur. Think of the murals around the country dedicated to George Floyd, Breanna Taylor, Michael Brown Jr., Tamir Rice and the myriad others victimized by the police and how their images have become indelibly etched in the minds of Americans.

For Gray and Nelson, activist art goes well beyond expression or bringing awareness to social and criminal justice issues. Music, literature, visual and multimedia art can frame those issues in such a way that inspires radical and creative new solutions. They believe America’s most talented artists play a vital role in creating a country free of racial violence, police misconduct, and mass incarceration. “We can’t imagine a future different than the present without involving our best creators,” Nelson said.

Barring Freedom and Visualizing Abolition bring together an influential A-list group of artists and creators. The exhibition and series of online events included a ten-screen film and photographic exploration of the life of abolitionist Frederick Douglass by Isaac Julien, UC Santa Cruz Distinguished Professor of the Arts; work by MacArthur “Genius” Grant winner Titus Kaphar; altered statues and heirloom quilts that chronicle Black life and American violence by Harlem-based artist Sanford Biggers; music from Grammy-winning composer and musician Terri Lyne; and a participatory sculpture of a solitary confinement cell by Jackie Sumell, a death row prisoner; all of which invites viewers to envision America without prisons.

The multimedia project garnered support and praise from prominent prison reform activists and abolitionists. Gina Dent, UC Santa Cruz associate professor of feminist studies, and Angela Davis see the exhibition as a continuation of the new generation’s activism to end mass incarceration in America. For her part, Dent studies how television entertainment, movies, and businesses profit off the country’s system of punishment and argues that the impetus to abolish prisons stems from the anti-slavery movement.

“It has always been our view that we could imagine a future without prisons if only we could draw on the way our ancestors imagined a world without slavery,” Dent says.

The San José Museum of Art exhibited Barring Freedom through May 2021, with an exhibition at John Jay College of Criminal Justice as well.

Visualizing Abolition went online Oct. 20 and will continue through May 18, 2021.

In the meantime, the police state continues to kill thousands of citizens each year, mostly with impunity and cages over 2 million people on any given day. Between the military, police and prison employees, the American police state has around 1 million armed people to enforce its will domestically and internationally. 


As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login