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Prisoner Art on Display in New York City Exhibition

Most all prisons have visitation rooms decorated with murals done by unit artists. Murals are often allowed in main halls and in education departments. Art is viewed by officials, educators and visitors, as well as volunteers.

Nichole Fleetwood grew up in southwest Ohio. She describes her home demographic as a “hyper-incarcerated” area. She was exposed to, and began to appreciate prisoner art in the visitation areas whenever she visited various imprisoned relatives and friends.

Fleetwood is now a professor at Rutgers University, where she teaches American studies and art history. As one of the many people who is impacted by criminal justice by virtue of her incarcerated loved ones, she began to seriously consider an exhibition of prisoner art more than 10 years ago.

While attempting to secure funding for such a project or a display venue for this type of program, Fleetwood encountered ambivalence, indifference, many flat out “no” answers and verbal responses — virtually like, “Why would you glorify criminals?” As the general public’s awareness of mass incarceration broadened, her persistence finally paid off.

Fleetwood was able to curate an exhibit, Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. The show debuted early last year and ran through April 4, 2020. A book about the exhibit can be bought on the museum’s website.

To be allowed to guest-curate her own exhibit is a new innovation under the leadership of new gallery director Kate Fowle “is indeed cementing an institutional commitment to engaging with both the issue of mass incarceration and a broader audience base,” according to Fleetwood.

The show’s central theme is how mass incarceration destroys communities. Using only art from criminal justice involved and criminal justice affected citizens, “Each of the artist’s own experiences echoes one side or the other of that same equation: either they have experience of incarceration themselves, or it has directly impacted their lives. And that is what sets this show apart,” Fleetwood stated.

The show’s intent is to arrest the viewer’s attention, almost shock and awe them. Fleetwood characterizes it as “an intervention.”

The works are divided into three categories, exploring “how being locked up affects time, space and physical matter.” On display are works from Ojore Lutalo, many of his “zine-like collages” produced during a 22-year-long solitary confinement stint; Sable Elyse Smith’s “multidisciplinary practice” that was driven and inspired by the physical absence of her imprisoned father during her early years, and Larry Cook’s prison visitation room portraits. 


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