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Nicole R. Fleetwood’s essay is a customized combination of parts of the preface, sections of the introduction, and some new text explaining her book, Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration which has been translated into a current exhibition at MoMA PS1. The essay was altered for publication by the author. The exhibition is curated by Nicole R. Fleetwood.
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Incarceration has restructured my family and my hometown of Hamilton, Ohio in southwest Ohio. Countless relatives have been arrested and detained; some have been convicted and sentenced, while others have been held indefinitely and then let go.
Studies of the rise in prisons and the growth of the carceral state offer insightful explanations of what many of us experience in our communities: the mass removal of family members, neighbors, and friends, along with the permanent stigma on imprisoned people and their families.
As I came of age, in the late 1980s, people around me, mainly young black teens but also older women and men, were being shipped off to prison at such a frequency that their sudden disappearance and long-term absence became the norm. Boys my age who went to school with me were there and then gone, some never to return. They became invisible to us and hard to reach because of all the mechanisms the carceral state uses to separate imprisoned people from their families and communities. We had no words to describe the utter devastation, the despair.
Opening our local newspaper was often cause for pain and embarrassment, as photographs of people we knew seen in handcuffs were all too common. Often, these were images of black children and teenagers, infamously referred to as “superpredators” in the 1990s by journalists and politicians alike.
At the same time, there were other images being produced about mass incarceration —images that rarely made the news and had little or no public circulation. They offered different interpretations of prisons and their impact. These were not journalistic, scholarly, or legal documents. They were a diverse assortment of artworks and illustrations that came from inside the prisons themselves: studio photos, handmade greeting cards, drawings, and other pieces of art made by incarcerated people.
Relatives in prison sent home graphite drawings and birthday cards designed by incarcerated artists. Some facilities permitted us to take photographs together when we visited our relatives and friends. The visiting rooms where we sat with our imprisoned loved ones often displayed paintings, miniatures, and sculptures made by artists warehoused there. These objects were not new forms of prison art, but as the size of the prison population boomed, the visual culture of mass incarceration grew along with it.
Marking Time grows out of a decade of research and programming. I have interviewed more than 70 people, including imprisoned artists, teachers, nonprofit administrators, prison staff, activists, and the loved ones and relatives of imprisoned people. The book and exhibition center prisons in contemporary art and culture and the robust world of art-making inside US prisons. I set out to engage the politics of this art-making in prisons, and, more expansively, art as politics in an era of extensive human caging and other forms of carceral power. How has the colossal reach of the prison industrial complex shaped contemporary art institutions and art-making? And how does visual art help to reveal the depth of devastation caused by our nation’s punishment system?
In Ronnie Goodman’s 2008 painting “San Quentin Arts in Corrections Art Studio,” the artist is alone at work in a studio. The self-portrait shows him inside a cavernous space of multistoried walls and beamed ceilings. We see him in profile, from the knees up, dressed all in blue and bent slightly forward, studying a print. On the walls, dwarfing him and above his reach, are portraits, landscape paintings, and still-life renditions. The details of the workspace — the light, the height, and the open floor plan — all suggest an idyllic scene for the creation of art.
Goodman made the painting while he was incarcerated at San Quentin and taking art classes through William James Association, a nonprofit organization that provides classes in California prisons. The prison studio, in Goodman’s painting, is a space of imaginative possibility, as well as a place constrained by his incarceration and the layered history of the carceral state. His painting is a reflection on the conditions under which art is made within prisons, while also reimagining the space.
His painting is an example of what I call “carceral aesthetics”: ways of envisioning and crafting art that reflects the conditions of imprisonment. Every year, incarcerated people create millions of paintings, drawings, sculptures, greeting cards, collages, and other visual materials that circulate inside prisons, between incarcerated people and their loved ones, in private collections, and more recently in the public domain.
The project highlights the compulsion to make, to create, and to produce meaning under brutal and austere circumstances in the larger setting of the carceral state. There are lessons here, developed by people in prison, about how to create, to forge relations, and to embody and represent one’s life under unimaginable conditions. And so we learn about a society that relies on punitive confinement as a solution to myriad social, economic, political, ecological, and health crises.
Marking Time has been made possible by the transformative vision of freedom, justice, and belonging of an amazing group of currently and formerly incarcerated artists and their loved ones and allies. They inspire me every day. Our freedom is interdependent. Prisons — indefinite detention, parole, concentration camps — exist inasmuch as we allow them to.
I write this in honor of Ronnie Goodman who passed away in a housing encampment in San Francisco’s Mission District on August 7, 2020. May he rest in peace.