By pushing the paradigms of art into uncharted territories, a diverse group of contemporary artists has been directly addressing a call for freedom from the carceral state. Their broad calls for abolitionist change and values span immigrant “detention centers,” prisons, jails, within the workings of the police state, from state censorship, against surveillance, and on behalf of global political prisoners. From local acts to global networks, each artist’s new approach is crucial to capturing the attention of new audiences and mobilizing innovative thinking to the crisis of mass incarceration and global humanitarian failures perpetuated by police.
Within the What Rhymes with Freedom? exhibition at SPACE, and throughout the statewide partner exhibitions on Freedom & Captivity, important methodologies of local education, global solidarity, advocacy storytelling, and artist-activism are considered. What Rhymes with Freedom?, on view 10 September through 31 October, pushes the boundaries of exhibition making: transforming the gallery into an experimental media library that is responsive, visionary, activist, and centers a call for freedom over visualizing the brutalities of incarceration.
Abolitionist icon and thought leader Angela Davis noted in remarks delivered in Denver in 2008 that “The idea of freedom is inspiring. But what does it mean? If you are free in a political sense but have no food, what’s that? The freedom to starve?” Freedom is an ecosystem; it has no fully kindred synonym. Many artists within this coalition have pointed further to the fact that freedom is filled with pluralities: numerous individual freedoms must be worked on simultaneously in order to realize true liberation. One example is the call of For Freedoms co-founders Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman to update Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms and work with artists in all 50 states (collaborating since 2018 with SPACE, Indigo Arts Alliance, MECA, and CMCA). Meanwhile, the activist Beehive Collective in Machias has spent decades exploring how the social, environmental, justice, and human rights movements are intertwined in large-scale prints, highlighting the intersectionality of the political movements of our time.
So how can contemporary art on the gallery walls go beyond didactic moralism and motivate constructive community dialogue for a sustainable future? A general public can easily disregard contemporary art as self-referential and increasingly commercial, but at its best, contemporary art is an exciting instigator of local and global change. Here, art becomes the cultural site of the rally: celebration, meditation, critical discussion, and leading by example. This is traditionally a realm where photography immediately succeeded through the modes of documentation, archive, and propaganda, but now extends into the world of sound, graphic design, illustration, social practice, media works, and interdisciplinary practices.
The Freedom & Captivity project in Maine marks the first of its kind, a singular statewide coalition around the humanities and contemporary art to explore changing attitudes, repairing the history of harm, and explores the history of activism as our local and national justice systems face calls for reform and/or abolition of current practices. Nationally, Freedom & Captivity joins recent projects within institutions, record labels, and magazines to explore the heightened artist-activism movement with calls for abolition.
Some of these notable exhibitions/projects include:
- the recent Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration at MoMA PS1 (https://markingtimeart.com/) which also explored the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on prisons;
- the first exhibition to tackle mass incarceration, Eastern State Penitentiary’s Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration curated by Sean Kelly (https://www.easternstate.org/);
- the first traveling exhibition to explore questions of human rights in incarceration, States of Incarceration, which has been co-created by over 800 people in 18 different states (https://statesofincarceration.org/).
- Record labels that work to re-release little-heard musical projects like Numero Group have joined efforts to amplify the sounds that come from within prison walls. With their recent reissue Eyes of Love, Numero Group spotlighted a group of musical artists who were incarcerated from across the Virginia commonwealth called The Edge Of Daybreak, while serving out sentences of six to sixty years.
- Poetry magazine dedicated its February 2021 issue (not without controversy) exclusively to poets who are or were formerly incarcerated, with a guest editor.
Each of these artistic initiatives is foundational to a broader perspective of the lived experience of incarceration. As this artistic response builds nationwide, Freedom & Captivity presents a new lens on these issues as it simultaneously amplifies hope, dignity, and restorative practices with social justice community partners like Maine Youth Justice, Maine Inside Out, and the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition among others.
The platform for creative expression on abolition that has been built through Freedom & Captivity prioritizes ideas that highlight dismantling oppression, rebuilding roads to security for all people, reimagining futures, and celebrating freedom in all of its forms. As the coalition has stated: “We understand abolition to include both the dismantlement of oppressive and racist systems of policing, incarceration, captivity, and surveillance; and the commitment to community-led systems of care, strategies to reduce harm, and life-nurturing futures.”
One of the most important attributes of many of these abolitionist artists, designers, and cultural organizers is that they are all world builders, prioritizing change and what is ahead. Curatorial collective Border Patrol has been working with people held at the Mesa Verde ICE Detention Facility during this pandemic, rendering visible the conditions of their detention and the carceral state that grows as people migrate across borders. Border Patrol became an agent to render visible what was hidden from sight and opened the doors to understanding the imaginations and visions of these individuals through drawing practices. In October, Border Patrol will launch a book of these artworks compiled by artists who are or have been detained in Mesa Verde after staging an exhibition in California this past year. Artist-organizers take the front seat in works from the collection of Brad Duncan, including brochures, flyers, prison newsletters, zines, poetry, and posters calling for the freedom of political prisoners, the refunding of communities through prison abolition, global solidarity for prisoners, and the “new Jim Crow” of our carceral state vis-a-vis slavery. Those named and unnamed not only posit new worlds in their drawings, poems, designs, and words but work as activists in their respective communities organizing and pushing for change.
Other works on view in the SPACE show include artists working with political prisoners: Paul Chan with imprisoned attorney Lynne Stewart, Annie Goldson with Mumia Abu-Jamal. Stewart combines poetry with legal language to question what we know as the meaning of conviction. Abu-Jamal has a performance media platform for his writings from death row. Meanwhile, explorations of what is free and what is heralded as strength in architecture are critically explored by other artists. Celebrated abolitionist artist Laurie Jo Reynolds in Space Ghost collides imagery of astronauts and prisoners, posing questions to viewers why one receives training and is heralded as heroic in society while the other is given no resources for durational isolation and is looked down upon. Sterling Ruby contrasts the wild landscape around for-profit mass incarceration centers in California, showing the contradictions between a natural state and those imposed by society through the justice system. Each work provokes a significant question simply through contrasting aesthetic similarities and differences: how do we prevent harm when prisons force human bodies into unnatural systems and conditions no living being was ever made for?
To be imprisoned is a contraction of the world, and to make or experience art is to expand what we know as our world. Most importantly, art and storytelling are among the most important vehicles we have as a society for bridging understanding in crisis. By tuning in to the many artists amplified in each exhibition and the many projects within Freedom & Captivity, our state and voters will be better positioned to make informed decisions about upholding the dignity and rights of all people in the great state of Maine. Dirigo.
Image at top: Illustration from Gay Liberation Magazine, Courtesy of the collection of Brad Duncan/Radical Archive.