Hank Willis Thomas, “If the Leader Only Knew” (2014) (all images courtesy San José Museum of Art and the artists)

Hank Willis Thomas’s bronze sculpture, “If the Leader Only Knew,” greets visitors to the San José Museum of Art’s exhibition Barring Freedom. The sculpture is based on a photo of prisoners at a Nazi concentration camp, showing hands gripping a barbed wire fence.

The Institute of the Arts and Sciences at University of California, Santa Cruz and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York collaborated with the museum to put on an art exhibition and online event series about art, prison, and justice. The exhibit will continue at the museum through April 2021, and then travel to John Jay College.

Levester Williams, “Tar Ball”

Other pieces in the show include Sadie Barnette’s “FBI Drawings: No Violence,” where, with care, and drawings of tiny roses, she has transformed pages in the FBI surveillance file of her father, the founder of the Black Panther Party chapter in Compton, California. For his “Tar Ball,” Levester Williams wadded up dirty sheets from a Virginia penitentiary and dipped them in tar. “Flies and things are stuck in it, so it’s this very visceral piece,” said Lauren Schell Dickens, SJMA senior curator, on a FaceTime tour of the exhibition. “It’s reminiscent of the iron balls historically used on chain gangs, so it links past manifestations of terror to our current systems.”

The black-and-white photos of the Louisiana State Prison from Chandra McCormick and Keith Calhoun’s series, Slavery: The Prison Industrial Complex, also underscore the link between the systems of slavery and incarceration. The series, which the New Orleans-born artists have working on since 1980, shows inmates of the prison, built on former cotton and sugarcane plantations, working the fields. 

Chandra McCormick and Keith Calhoun, from Slavery: The Prison Industrial Complex

The idea to have artists take on complex issues around the justice system came about after the unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown, a Black man, was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. After the shooting, a US Department of Justice study found racial bias in every department of the Ferguson Police Department, such as in use of force and traffic stops, as well as racist emails being exchanged by officers on work hours.

“It was a big thing, except it wasn’t,” Rachel Nelson, the director of UC Santa Cruz Institute of the Arts and Sciences and co-curator of Barring Freedom with Alexandra Moore, said about the study.  “Gallup polls were done and something like 56% of white people thought there was no racism in the criminal justice system.”

The driving force behind the show is using art to engage people in different ways, so they can see the dynamics of racism. Nelson thinks UC Santa Cruz, with its strong history of research in this area and faculty members, such as feminist studies professor Gina Dent and anti-prison activist Angela Davis, is a natural fit to host conversations about freedom and justice. Upcoming free events include Abolition Then and Now with artist Isaac Julien and Robin D.G. Kelly, a professor of African American Studies at University of California, Los Angeles, as well as Prisons and Poetics with poet Reginald Dwayne Betts, who has written a book about going from being incarcerated as a teenager to graduating from Yale Law School.

“Solitary Garden,” on the UC Santa Cruz campus overlooking Monterey Bay, is the center of the show, Nelson and Dickens say. Artist jackie sumell made a sculpture of a solitary confinement cell, surrounded by a vegetable and flower garden, which UC Santa Cruz students helped plant, taking directions from Tim Young, who has been in a cell on Death Row at San Quentin State Prison for a couple decades. Young’s letters hang in the exhibit at the San José Museum.  

jackie sumell, “Solitary Garden,” at UC Santa Cruz

“This shows you the ways people can’t be contained even on Death Row,” Dickens said. “In letters he writes of planting the garden he would want to grow even though he hasn’t been able to touch the ground in years.”

Nelson says pieces like this attempt to go beyond facts to show the truth of a situation. In reference to the current system of mass incarceration, Angela Davis has said, “Dangerous limits have been placed on the very possibility of imagining alternatives.” The artists in Barring Freedom seek to envision other possibilities.  

Barring Freedom continues at the San José Museum of Art (110 S Market St, San Jose, Calif.) through April 25, 2021.

Emily Wilson is a radio and print reporter in San Francisco. She has written stories for dozens of media outlets including NPR, Latino USA, the San Francisco Chronicle, SF Weekly, California Teacher,...