Given the media coverage that has been given to the admirable efforts of humanitarian organizations and some political leaders working towards remedying unjust treatment of the incarcerated, it is noteworthy that artists are producing projects geared towards inmate rehabilitation, and that prisoners themselves, some unjustly held or mistreated, are practicing art as an expressive vehicle that calls attention to their plight.
Los Angeles artist Kim Abeles enlisted over 25 of the women inmates of Camp 13 who are deployed to fight wildfires in Los Angeles County to participate in the creation of "Valises for Camp Ground: Arts, Corrections, and Fire Management in the Santa Monica Mountains," a series of ten sculptural valises that were exhibited last fall at Pasadena's Armory Center for the Arts, which managed the project. Although they owe an art historical debt to Marcel Duchamp's groundbreaking valises filled with small reproductions of his own art, Abeles' valises are more than just an aesthetic or conceptual statement. While engaging as sculptures when closed, each opens up to function as a three-dimensional teaching manual. Topics range from how to fight fires, what tools to use, what type of plants are invasive and thus hazardous, how fires are started both in natural and residential settings, what species of plants are at risk of extinction, how to protect our homes from dangerous critters, what forms of animal life are necessary to preserve nature, and what our responsibilities are as stewards of nature. Post exhibition, the valises are being used by the National Park Service and County Fire Department as education aids.
The project also elevated the validity of inmate rehabilitation. The story told by the valises made it possible to see these prisoners as contributing members of society rather than empty vessels suitable only for punishment. Two other exhibitions currently on view in San Francisco and Los Angeles expand the case for the social good served by such an approach to incarceration, one that I find compelling both aesthetically and politically.
In San Francisco you can take the cruise to the one-time prison island of Alcatraz to see the exhibition "Future IDs at Alcatraz." Phoenix artist Gregory Sale undertook this project in collaboration with members of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, a justice reform advocacy group. Beginning in 2017, the organizers held workshops across California where individuals with conviction histories produced "Future ID" artworks that reveal positive new visions of themselves, in contrast with the identities pictured on their prison-issued ID cards.
Presented in partnership with the Art in the Parks program of the National Park Service, the "Future IDs" exhibition features vinyl prints with enlarged reproductions of images that reveal stories of transformation. With the Trump-led government having diminished or butchered social programs designed to improve the quality of life and well-being for many Americans, it is heartening to know that the National Park Service played an integral role in Abeles' and Sale's projects, both of which contribute to the rehabilitation of a disadvantaged sector of the population by offering them some degree of dignity, hope and healing.
A third project, at the Craft Contemporary in Los Angeles titled "On the Inside," features 110 portrait drawings by LGBTQ+ prisoners whose time behind bars is confounded by the constant threat of homophobic attacks by other inmates and even corrections officers. First exhibited in 2016 at the Abrons Art Center in New York City, the project was conceived by Princess Tatiana von Fürstenberg and developed in collaboration with Black and Pink, an activist organization whose mission is "to liberate LGBTQIA2S+ people/people living with HIV who are affected by (the criminal justice) system, through advocacy, support, and organizing." Participants were selected from among 4,000 who responded to a call for entries published in the Black and Pink newsletter. In terms of skill and aesthetic quality, the works on view are quite accomplished — especially considering that the artists were restricted to working with letter sized paper, dull pencils, and ball-point pen ink tubes (the outer shells could conceivably be used as weapons). Installed salon-style and superimposed over a wall mural featuring blown-up reproductions of some of the drawings and quotations from participants, the drawings reveal a range of subjects, with images of Barack Obama, religious figures and boxers among the favorites.
The story of Miami-based artist Jose Alvarez (D.O.P.A.) relates to a different kind of incarceration in which the prisoner is wrongly held. Alvarez spent two months in 2012 feeling very much a prisoner when he was held in an immigration detention center, having been accused of identity theft (charges that were eventually dropped). Alvarez, whose birth name is Deyvi Orangel Peña Artega (hence D.O.P.A.), fled Venezuela for the U.S. in the 1980s to escape persecution for nothing more heinous than the crime of being gay. He adopted his new name when he began his career as an artist. Upon entering the detention center, Alvarez initially sunk into depression, but he was pulled out of it when his cellmate brought him paper and a ballpoint pen refill (as in prisons, the outer shell wasn't permitted) so he could draw portraits of fellow detainees. Twenty-eight of the drawings are on view at Gavlak Los Angeles through August 17, accompanied by wall labels that tell us what little Alvarez was able to learn about his subjects. One of the most poignant stories is that of a young man who began crying while sitting for his portrait. He later confided to Alvarez that no one had ever drawn him before, and this made him feel validated.
Alvarez's exhibition highlights healing and communicative powers of art made in the dire circumstance of detainment void of a criminal act. This is all about punishment without rehabilitation because there has been no actual wrongdoing. The brutally honest drawings made in McAllen, Texas by migrant children, ages ten and eleven, after being released from a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing center are far less sophisticated than Alvarez's portraits, but also strike a deep emotional chord. These simple drawings, now being sought by the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History for their collection, depict cages, children sleeping on the floor and other atrocities. Speaking truth to power, they offer us one of the most revealing views to date of our current humanitarian crisis. This is incarceration as child abuse.