Ahmed Rabbani, “Untitled (Binoculars Pointing at the Moon)” (2016), paint on paper, 18 x 20 inches (courtesy of the artist) (all photos by Martin Parsekian)

“Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?” When Michel Foucault raised this question in Discipline and Punish, he pushed readers to reconceptualize the way legal structures of power are inherited and reproduced in the extrajudicial mind. “The Pencil Is a Key: Drawings by Incarcerated Artists,” on view at the Drawing Center through Jan. 5, 2020, also asks us to reconsider the way internment shapes perception, taking instead the creative minds of the incarcerated as its subject.

Organized by the Center’s curatorial team across two galleries, the exhibition’s more than 140 works span continents, training levels, and types of incarceration, from Western penal systems to psychological institutions and more. And while the show covers centuries, today’s constant headlines about mass incarceration and border detentions lend it a special timeliness. The aesthetic variety, breadth of stories told, and moving — occasionally inspirational — themes presented make “The Pencil Is a Key” feel much larger than it is, deserving of a slow and contemplative visit. 

Attributed to Bear’s Heart (Nokkoist) “Untitled Ledger Drawing” (c. 1875–1878), watercolour, graphite, and color pencil on paper, 8 5/8 × 11 1/4 inches (courtesy of Donald Ellis Gallery, New York, Vancouver)

Organized roughly chronologically, the exhibition opens with Hubert Robert’s “An Inmate of Saint-Lazare Prison” (1794), a pensive ink-and-graphite sketch of the titular character sitting at a small table with their back to us. One can easily imagine the artist himself in that seat, hunched over his creative work as he served time during the French Revolution due to his links to the monarchy. 

This direct observation of life inside — a documentary expression of lived experience, common throughout art history but here suffocated by the walls of imprisonment — is a constant trope in the show. Bear’s Heart (Nokkoist) was a Southern Cheyenne artist captured by the U.S. Army and taken to Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida, following the Red River War. His work often recorded the forced journey and a ledger drawing attributed to him depicts the train used to transport him and other captives, a conflicted, colorful construction that is part whimsical and part ominous. 

From left to right: Josè Alvarez (D.O.P.A.), “Brahima” (2012); “David H.” (2012); “Roberto Q.” (2012), all works ball point pen on paper, each 14 x 8 1/2 inches (courtesy of the artist and Gavlak Gallery Los Angeles/ Palm Beach)

Portraits of fellow prisoners by Azza Abo Rebieh (in pencil) and Jose Alvarez aka D.O.P.A. (in pen) may be less immediately readable but are no less affecting. A Syrian activist arrested by government forces in September 2015, Rebieh records the bright-eyed boy “Fares,” whose crooked smile is a chilling reminder of the violence visited upon even the youngest in a conflict that still ravages that country. While detained in Miami for immigration violations, Alvarez made over 30 drawings of undocumented migrants, often recording a short biography of each subject. “Brahima” (2012) presents a proud, unbroken visage shared by many subjects. Coursing through these works is a persistent assertion of humanity: we are here, we are people, we refuse to be unseen.

Halina Olomucki “The Prayer” (c. 1939–1942) paper, graphite, 8 1/4 x 5 3/4 inches (courtesy the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection)

Many pieces move beyond the documentary, utilizing a more emotional, expressionist language to capture the singular experience of incarceration. The most stirring works here are Halina Olomucki’s, created during her time in the Warsaw Ghetto and, later, the Majdanek extermination camp. “The Woman and the Agony” and “The Prayer” (both c. 1939-42), with their stooped, curled, and crawling figures, punch you in the gut, their slight forms ripple, flowing from the wave of horrors revealed to the world upon Allied liberation. Sérgio Sister’s “How about running away from jail” (1970), on the other hand, is a vibrant, Pop-inflected call of protest, created while he was detained and tortured by the forces of the Brazilian military dictatorship. 

Installation view: Sérgio Sister’s work on view in The Pencil Is a Key: Drawings by Incarcerated Artists, The Drawing Center, New York. October 11, 2019 – January 5, 2020.

Perhaps the most inspiring works in the exhibition are those made with an eye to maintaining a sense of normalcy, even optimism, behind bars, testaments to the unquashable hope people nurture in even the most oppressive circumstances. Alexey Wangenheim’s postcards — beautiful miniatures of eclipses and the polar lights — were made in Stalin’s Gulag. Sent to his daughter, they were meant as educational snippets, heart-wrenching documents of a devoted father struggling to remain present during his absence — an absence that concluded with his death in a mass execution of prisoners in 1937. 

Political imprisonment is no stranger to American soil, and a collection of works from the World War II-era internment of Japanese -Americans also reveals expressions of hope. Witness Henry Fukuhara’s detailed watercolor-and-graphite architectural sketch of a dam from 1942. The native Californian sketched scenes from life in the Manzanar concentration camp and created plans for buildings and infrastructure to better life there. Even when treated as an enemy by his own country, Fukuhara strove to improve the lot of those around him. 

Henry Fukuhara, “Untitled (Architectural Drawing of Barracks)” (1943), watercolor, 20 1/8 x 27 1/2 in (51.1 x 69.9 cm)
(courtesy the Japanese American National Museum, gift of Henry Fukuhara)

A more contemporary expression of this enduring spirit is found in Mansoor Adayfi, Abdualmalik Abud, Saeed, and Khalid Qasim’s “Yemen Milk & Honey Farms Limited” project. Between 2013 and 2014, the Guantanamo detainees created a plan for a large-scale sheep-farming venture — complete with feasibility reports and detailed schematics. Their aspirations for the future are a potently practical reminder of existence outside a cage and a future free from bondage. 

With The Pencil Is a Key, the Drawing Center has created an expansive view of incarceration, and makes a quietly impassioned argument for creativity as a palliative, even liberatory, force. With carceral politics more visible than ever, once can hope that the arc of history will indeed continue to bend toward justice. But as this show poignantly reminds us, when these issues come up, it is imperative to remember what lies at the center of these institutions: real human beings. 

Purvis Young, “Untitled” (1964), ballpoint pen and crayon on reverse of advertisement, 11 x 8 3/4 inches (courtesy the Larry T Clemons Collection)

The Pencil is a Key: Drawings by Incarcerated Artists continues at the Drawing Center through January 5, 2020. The exhibition was curated by the Center’s curatorial team: Claire Gilman, Rosario Güiraldes, Laura Hoptman, Isabella Kapur, and Duncan Tomlin.

Brian P. Kelly is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn; he serves as the Wall Street Journal's Associate Arts in Review Editor. You can follow him on Twitter.