Date September 7, 2022
Media Contact

Bell Gallery exhibition sheds light on the criminal justice system’s impact

Called “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” the exhibition features paintings, sculptures and other works by prisoners, loved ones and advocates.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — According to Nicole Fleetwood, spending time in prison can fundamentally change the way a person sees the world.

Fleetwood, a media and culture scholar at New York University, wanted more Americans to understand that. So she curated a traveling exhibition of art made by people who are incarcerated, alongside art by others whose lives have been affected by the carceral system in some way — allowing the public to see how imprisonment can literally alter perspectives. The exhibition debuted at New York City’s MoMA PS1 in 2020.

This fall, the critically acclaimed show is headed to Brown University, where it will be on display at the David Winton Bell Gallery and the Cohen Gallery. Called “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” it features paintings, sculptures, photographs and other works that shed light on the monumental impact of the criminal justice system on all aspects of American society.

The free, public exhibition opens on Friday, Sept. 16, at the Bell and Cohen galleries and runs through Sunday, Dec. 18. A handful of talks and other events held throughout Fall 2022, co-hosted by the Brown Arts Institute, the Department of Africana Studies and other scholarly hubs across campus, will accompany the exhibition.

man wearing a jumpsuit facing an airbrushed cityscape
Washington D.C. artist Larry Cook depicts the unique frustration of living a life mostly removed from loved ones and familiar surroundings in “The Visiting Room #2."

Scholars estimate that the number of Americans held in prisons and jails tops 2 million — more than any other country, both per capita and in absolute numbers. But Fleetwood said incarcerated people aren’t the only ones who have been transformed by the United States’ system of punishment and imprisonment.

“I think one of the most insidious ways that the carceral system impacts most people in the U.S. is by the ease with which we accept punitive governance as a way of life,” Fleetwood said. “We live under the constant threat of being punished for all kinds of matters big and small — not paying a bill on time, sending our children to school late, not filing a form in a certain way. So while many millions might not be suffering behind bars, they are still very much part of this system that allows for the suffering of those held captive.”

That’s why, she said, she believes it’s important for all Americans to understand how interactions with police, courts and correctional facilities can trigger an inner shift. Many of the artists in the exhibition touch on how incarceration has altered their perception of the passage of time or changed their relationships to physical spaces.

Washington D.C. artist Larry Cook, for example, depicts the unique frustration of living a life mostly removed from loved ones and familiar surroundings in “The Visiting Room #2,” a photo included in the exhibition. The main subject of the photo is a Black man dressed in a combination of prison garb and streetwear, symbolizing the way in which incarcerated people can feel caught between two worlds while talking to family and friends in prison visiting rooms. In the photo, the man gazes at an airbrushed cityscape backdrop, symbolizing prisoners’ common tendency to seek escape by idealizing memories from the past or dreaming of a happier future.

“ I hope that people walk away with more concern about, and dare I say curiosity to explore, the depth, reaches and entanglements of the carceral system... ”

Nicole Fleetwood Professor of Media, Culture and Communication, New York University

Airbrushed backdrops are common fixtures in prison waiting rooms; sometimes, prisoners and their loved ones pose together in front of them. Sable Elyse Smith, another artist featured in the exhibition, also alludes to the backdrops in her large-scale neon piece “Landscape V.” Just as Western artists’ landscape paintings were fantasies depicting people luxuriating in unspoiled nature, and just as visiting-room backdrops allowed incarcerated people to fantasize about a life outside prison walls, Smith’s “landscape” of words is a poetic daydream about what could happen if racially biased policing came to an end.

Fleetwood said her goal in curating “Marking Time” was to inspire visitors to examine American law enforcement with a more critical eye.

“I hope,” Fleetwood said, “that people walk away with more concern about, and dare I say curiosity to explore, the depth, reaches and entanglements of the carceral system, and that they feel emboldened to hold accountable entities that benefit from punishment industries.”

To coincide with the exhibition’s opening, three of the artists will join Fleetwood in a panel discussion on Friday, Sept. 16, at 6 p.m. An opening reception on the lawn outside the List Art Center will follow. And on Saturday, Sept. 17, at 1 p.m., a handful of the artists featured in the exhibition will lead their own tours in the gallery. All events are free and open to the public.

Kate Kraczon, the Brown Art Institute’s exhibitions director and chief curator, said she is working with faculty across campus to plan additional complementary events later in the fall. On Thursday, Oct. 13, a conversation between Fleetwood and artists Dean Gillespie and George Morton will follow screenings of Gillespie’s short films and Morton’s documentary “Master of Light,” which focuses on how he found success as a painter after spending 11 years in prison. And on Wednesday, Nov. 2, Smith, one of the exhibition’s artists and a Brown Arts Institute artist in residence, will give a talk about how her work sheds light on often unseen violence. 

In addition, Lisa Biggs, an assistant professor of the arts and Africana studies at Brown, is not only organizing a corresponding fall discussion about the criminal legal system’s impact on Rhode Island families, but is also spearheading an effort to purchase and distribute children’s books about the challenges families face when they are separated by incarceration, created by organizer and educator Mariame Kaba. Biggs is also working with the John Hay Library to mount a related fall exhibition of poetry by current and formerly incarcerated people. Kraczon said further details will soon be available on the Bell Gallery’s website.

The David Winton Bell Gallery is open to the public from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; on Thursdays, it is open until 8 p.m. Admission is free.