What does abolition look like, sound like, feel like?
Freedom & Captivity: Art on Abolition attempts to capture the sensorial qualities of abolitionist feelings, yearnings, visions, and imaginings. If we take abolition to mean liberation, thoughtful and reparative responses to harm, investments in safe and healthy communities, a rejection of cruelty, and an embrace of love—what does that look like, sound like, feel like?
In November 2020, Freedom & Captivity posed this question as an open call to artists across the country. Over the next seven months, incarcerated artists, formerly incarcerated artists, and artists who have never been incarcerated sent us their visions of an abolitionist future. The resulting work ranges across genre and form: drawing, painting, collage, textiles, photography, performance, film and video, music and audio, poetry and spoken word, prose, and sculpture. Some artists are self-taught; some are working in carceral environments with limited or no access to art supplies; others are established artists with a studio practice and institutional support. The texts accompanying each piece vary, depending on how the materials arrived, our ability to communicate with the artist, and the constraints under which the artwork was produced and sent to us.
The resulting digital exhibition reflects that abolition, while expressly about the goal of ending incarceration, also entails a diversity of viewpoints about how to get there and what that goal will look like.
Which is to say, abolition is a pluralism. It looks, sounds, and feels like a multitude of futures.
Freedom & Captivity organized the exhibition into four themes: History and New Futures; Protest and Revolution; Finding Voice, Power, Joy; Liberation.
The art in History and New Futures reflects how history lives in the present: it is both visible and invisible; memorialized in public and disappeared into private memories. Some of the works in this theme honor events, people, and structures of feeling that hover at the underside of memory and breathe life into possibilities for future transformations. Eno Laget’s Founding Father honors the late John Lewis while questioning which notable Americans are featured in official government-sanctioned portraits.
Other artists took inspiration from historical struggles for liberation, where an abolitionist future pays homage to heroic revolutionaries in the past—such as Travis Neel’s, The Thing Itself Was Unnecessary to Hold the Place Together, inspired by the 1973 Walpole Prison uprising.
Lastly, there are artistic reflections situated in an abolitionist future, as a place from which to look back and reflect on carceral histories. For example, Jacob Yeates’ collection of drawings, Objects From The Museum Of Human History, de-normalizes punitive devices—such as guns, handcuffs, and combat gear—by imagining them in a distant museum exhibition where imprisonment and policing are relics of a bygone era. Directly in conversation with Franny Choi’s 2015 poem, “Field Trip to the Museum of Human History,” Yeates’ future vantage point asks us: What would it mean to live without these devices in the present?
The contemporary abolitionist movement is part of a long struggle for freedom and liberation from carceral systems created to support white supremacy, colonialism, and inequality. The artistic reflections in Protest and Revolution show how art that documents and celebrates these struggles can motivate and clarify, embolden and enrage, and offer inspiration for revolutionary change.
For example, in the poem and video, “1-45 Have Lied, 46-100 Will Be No Different (I Don’t Want a Dyke for President),” artist Mwende Katwiwa questions whether reform can ever deliver real change. As they remark, “the poem recognizes we have been socialized out of imagination, and this impacts our ability to see|set ourselves free.”
Their poem calls to mind abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who famously said, “Abolition requires that we change one thing, which is everything.” Indeed, works in this section embrace radical change: from protest posters that demand transformational change, to a call for an entirely different political structure, to an emphatic self-portrait about being silent no more, to references to the transformative power of fire. Abolition will not happen without dramatic transformation.
Carcerality silences, disappears, and destroys. Abolition validates, repairs, and liberates.
In addition to tearing down structures of racism, inequality, and enforced cruelty, abolition is also about building new ways of living together and seeing each other. Finding Voice, Power, Joy celebrates the power of art for finding a voice—to challenge oppression, express joy, build community and solidarity, and claim shared humanity.
In Abdulkadir Ali’s spoken work performance Carceral Humanism, the artist explores how daily life feels within a carceral state as a human being. As a formerly incarcerated individual, Ali writes of this constant state, “the closest thing I could compare it to is by being quarantined for the rest of your life.”
The submissions grouped in this theme allow those who have been hidden through incarceration to become visible: they demand that we look and see and feel; they evade the objectifying gaze of surveillance technologies; they gesture toward the importance of recognizing mutual humanity as the basic starting point for transformative change.
The final theme, Liberation, concludes the exhibition with visions of what liberation looks like, sounds like, moves like, and feels like. Art offers unique access to liberation’s sensoria, exhibited here in fantasy visions and soundwaves, movement and lyricism, narrative and storytelling. The artists featured here draw on the lived experience of incarceration, the radical imagination of freedom, and futurist visions to help us see, hear, and feel liberation.
DaeQuan Collier refers to his short film from 2019, What if Black Boys Were Butterflies? as an “urgent social document.” By pairing an intimate off-screen conversation between two Black men with collage video of Black male youth, this work is a futurism that rejects the hyper-masculine gender norms society places on Black men today.
And in Ayling Dominguez’ chalk installation and participatory community project, Under a New Sun…, liberation is collective and ongoing. Dominguez prompted audiences to write out in chalk, “Under a new sun, there will be ____.” The responses led her to this conclusion:
“Abolition is not a fixed point somewhere down the road that we will reach and drive past one day on our way to and eventual arrival at a supposed utopia; abolition is a constant process and living out of radical care for each other.”
While exploring Art on Abolition, Freedom & Captivity urges audiences to consider ways to forge new connections with others and blaze a trail towards rehabilitation from the carceral state. Let’s embrace liberation. Let’s work toward abolition.
The Art on Abolition jury included Catherine Besteman, Skye Gosselin, Kelsey Halliday Johnson, Joseph Jackson, Samuel James, Marcia Minter, Daniel Minter, Julie Poitras Santos, and Lia Wilson. The exhibition is supported by Indigo Arts Alliance, Institute of Contemporary Art at MECA, and SPACE.
Image at top: Yannick Lowery, Learnin’, paper collage, 10 x 12 in., 2020.