My “Prisoner” series really began as a subset of a general series of works that explores men or people in suits, uniforms, or costumes. Additionally, I’ve explored animals of “black & white” coloration, like killer whales, skunks, and penguins. All of this is a general query into identities and alignments that humans create and adhere to. Though the initial interest on my part might be to select pre-existing motifs that illustrate simple color schemes, each character tends to carry with it further cultural, psychological, or ethical implications. The prisoner wears solid orange or sometimes the traditional stripes. He (for the most part so far) is hapless, as are many of my beings, and is often climbing out of a cave, hole, or a flaming, boiling Hell via a ladder or candy cane stripper pole. The worlds that he inhabits are schematic, whether they illustrate a rainbow-like geological stratum or an interior chamber inside a submarine painted with red and white stripes. He is to be viewed as a figure that inhabits worlds that might include familiar formations in the world outside of a prison, but that is constructed around the premise that we as humans often understand our environment through identifying schemes. I’m not sure if he is exactly incarcerated. He definitely has a basic urge to move on or participate in society in simple human terms: to be able to laugh, escape his situation, or enjoy a glass of wine. In this respect, my prisoner is both one of us and of us or a creation of our collective imagination. His desire to move or participate is his humanity, yet his identifying uniform and predicaments are a labyrinth or series of artificial linguistic constructs that society and culture understand as a way of separating out his humanity. Identifying colors, patterns, and structures give us external forms to build our alignments. These can be the tools of art, but in the hands of power, structures become demarcations. In the end, I think that my explorations hope to identify these demarcations and warn us away from holding too dearly to them. They possess the danger of having us form comfortable environments in our minds which can separate each of us from one another.
Andrew Ellis Johnson
Displaced and stateless people are often seen as stripped of culture, connection, profession, and the ability to care for each other or themselves. Works from the Somewhere Over the Border project depict migrants in their strength—possessing a past and dreaming a future. Children, captured and separated from their relatives by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Border Patrol Agents, invert the usual power dynamic. Their masks, attire, and postures draw upon a rich and self-sufficient culture. Mayan and Aztec iconography invoke the power of the Mesoamerican god Tezcatlipoca, associated with the night sky and winds, hurricanes, enmity, discord, divination, sorcery, and strife. In creation myths, Tezcatlipoca is often shown with his lost right foot replaced with an obsidian mirror.
Channeling night and the force of gales, the children sometimes become gods, tossing their powerless would-be captors on parachutes that become the heavens, or they sit as newborn kings, surrounded by border agents in awe. Some agents wear flower-patterned fatigues; their scopes and surveillance gear are aimless. Others become Mexican lucha libre pro-wrestlers in tights and tattoos, caught and tethered with beaded friendship bracelets. The children’s attire grants agency and promises transport—imprinted with sea creatures and freight trains colloquially known as “La Bestia” (The Beast)—that have carried them in dream or reality.
The wise men
traveled by starlight.
They didn’t offer
soap or food.
Incarcerated girls sleep in the forced sorority of isolation, separated from their parents seeking asylum at the border.
Their patterned bedding refers to the jaguar in Aztec and Mayan mythology, a being of the stars and the earth, alternately representing a brave warrior or ruler of the underworld; the night sun and darkness; power, ferocity, and valor; and the strength to face one’s fears or confront one’s enemies.
Paper chains of faceless human figures cast shadows in the cinder block room. The child in the lower bunk covers her face with laundry as lights remain on throughout the night in detention centers. Misidentification and loss of identity are reflected in the mirroring of the numerical stenciling of 906 and 906 on the bunk beds. That anonymity is resisted with possessions carried for months on migrant journeys, often across deserts and swamps, including clothing, hand-washed underwear drying on iron railings, religious cards, beaded necklaces and bracelets, and a plastic toy plant set on rungs of bunk bed ladders.
In 2016, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates announced the end of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ use of private prisons.
Before April 2018, asylum seekers were generally not prosecuted. Neither were people who came to the U.S. with their children.
They downplayed the cages for migrant children, comparing them to chain-link fences and playgrounds all over America.
On 18 June, Attorney General Jeff Sessions claimed family separation was ‘necessary’ to keep the country from being ‘overwhelmed.’
They held hands and linked arms in chains to prevent the placement of children in detention centers until the police arrived. They were handcuffed as they were arrested.
As of 26 June 2018, non-violent civil disobedience remains a punishable exercise of First Amendment rights.
They tried to weaken a link in the authoritarian chain.
A federal judge on 23 April 2020 ruled that the Trump administration was again violating a longstanding agreement that compels the government to release migrant children detained at the border within 20 days and ordered the minors to be released.
Migrants and refugees are not born but created out of dire circumstances typically resulting from systemic exploitation, economic destitution, and the upheavals of war and famine. These migrant children elude or take control of their circumstances. They haunt and loom over border patrol agents who pursue them.
The word chain in the text above is hyperlinked to the following sites in order.
Mary Becker Weiss
Image at top: Kenny Cole, Prison Movie, gouache on paper, 8.5 x 11 in., 2013.