African American Museum exhibition explores 'crisis' of incarceration

In one of Theodore Harris' collages, now on view at the African American Museum in Philadelphia, bursts of red bleed over a printed ballot form, stickers and images layer the surface: U.S. Out of Iraq Now, Does Praying Do Any Good?, Stop Executions, the Death Penalty Is a Hate Crime.

At the center of this jittery, violent triptych, beneath a plume of exploding, cascading black, is an image of Malcolm X.

Harris' piece is called The Ballot or the Bullet, a very direct reference to Malcolm X's famous 1964 speech:

"It's time now for you and me to become more politically mature and realize what the ballot is for; what we're supposed to get when we cast a ballot; and that if we don't cast a ballot, it's going to end up in a situation where we're going to have to cast a bullet. It's either a ballot or a bullet."

In this election season, Harris' work, part of the exhibition "Arresting Patterns," echoes previous elections, previous times of unrest, and, most particularly, the role of black Americans trapped in a web of institutionalized violence.

"I know it's political," said Harris. "I don't care. You want ambiguity, [look at] the complexity of the question."

"Arresting Patterns," which runs in Philadelphia until Sept. 11, was curated by Sarah Fritchey, gallery director at Artspace, a nonprofit organization in New Haven, Conn., where the show first ran last summer.

In Philadelphia, according to museum officials, it will be up for the Democratic National Convention in July, and several events are on the agenda that will draw convention delegates. (A town-hall meeting focusing on issues embedded in "Arresting Patterns" will be held at the museum from 2 to 5 p.m. July 10).

The confluence of the presidential nominating convention and an exhibition exploring race, criminal justice, art, and community was a unique opportunity for the museum, said Patricia Wilson Aden, president and chief executive of the African American Museum.

"These issues are urgent and people are passionate," said Aden. "This was a prime opportunity for us to present it to key elected officials and key decision-makers."

The exhibition features a number of unusual artworks, including Andy Warhol's black-and-white screen print Birmingham Race Riot (from 1964 - the same year as Malcolm X's speech), with its snarling dogs and club-wielding police; and two portraits from Titus Kaphar's The Jerome Project (2015), paintings on tar paper of inmates Kaphar discovered who had the same name as his father. Kaphar helped curate the show.

There are also several videos of performances by Dread Scott, including On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide (2014), which features Scott desperately trying to move forward as firefighters blast him with a hose; and two portraits from Mary DeWitt's series of paintings and audio renderings of women lifers in Pennsylvania state prisons.

The exhibition at the museum coincides with "Considering Mass Incarceration," a recently opened exhibit at Eastern State Penitentiary exploring the explosion of incarceration across the United States.

"Juvenile in Justice: End Solitary," a third exhibition focusing on the juvenile justice system, will open July 21 at the Free Library of Philadelphia (and other sites), just in time for the convention. That exhibit, organized by the nonprofit InLiquid artists organization, the Juvenile Law Center, and photographer Richard Ross, will focus on the destructive impact of solitary confinement.

Solitary confinement, said Rachel Zimmerman, a photographer and the director of InLiquid, "is considered torture in much of the world."

The curators and artists generally agree racial tensions exposed by numerous recent events - police killings; mass shootings in Charleston, S.C.; publication of Michelle Alexander's book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness (2010); and the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement - have combined to make incarceration a prime subject for national debate and artistic attention.

"The disparities within the criminal justice system are national," Aden said, "with huge implications not only for the African American community but for the American community - huge implications for society at large."

DeWitt, who has been working on portraits of virtually invisible female lifers in Pennsylvania prisons for almost two decades, said "it's a hard, hard topic." (She will have a show of new work, not part of her lifer series, opening in November at the Painted Bride Art Center.)

DeWitt's portraits at the museum are of Kennetta Andrews, a corrections officer at the Muncy state prison for women who became DeWitt's good friend and who died in 2012; and Avis Lee, arrested at 18, now in her 36th year in prison serving life without possibility of parole. During her incarceration, Lee has learned braille and transcribes books so the blind can read.

DeWitt's portraits are accompanied by recordings of her subjects, accessible through QR codes at the museum.

These portraits grew from DeWitt's sense that the women were increasingly warehoused and exploited.

"It was a long time before people became aware of the humanitarian crisis," she said. "I realized I could use portraits to bring visibility to them."

She looked at each inmate as a full human being, she said, and realized "that could be you or me."

ssalisbury@phillynews.com
215-854-5594

Continue Reading