Art: ‘A Matter of Liberation’

Thacher Gallery partners with Prison Renaissance to elevate incarcerated voices and artwork

“My Chained Response,” acrylic on canvas board, 2017, by Jason Perry. Courtesy of the Thatcher Gallery

Mardy Harding

Staff Writer

It’s not often that you get to meet the artist alongside the art when you see it for the first time, especially when the art was created inside a prison. This semester, with Gleeson Library’s Thacher Gallery moved online, the exhibition “A Matter of Liberation: Artwork from Prison Renaissance” kicked off by bringing five formerly incarcerated artists into conversation over Zoom. 

The exhibition began two years ago in partnership with Prison Renaissance, a nonprofit organization founded by formerly incarcerated activist Emile DeWeaver, with the goal of connecting incarcerated artists with platforms to elevate their voices and share their artwork. It was curated by Antwan “Banks” Williams, a multi-talented artist who is known for co-founding the podcast “Ear Hustle” while incarcerated in San Quentin State Prison. (Williams was released from San Quentin last October.) Glori Simmons, director of the Thacher Gallery, said Williams was brought on nine months ago. “We knew our artists would be incarcerated or formerly incarcerated, so we brainstormed a lot about what else would link their work and help us talk about justice in a way that would create a conversation between visiting students and the artists,” Simmons said. 

The art showcases a variety of media and messages. From DeWeaver’s poem “White Lies Matter,” performed by San Quentin’s artistic ensemble in a video, to Sara J. Kruzan’s fluid and three-dimensional canvases that brought her trauma to life, the pieces are a reminder that art is healing, and art is a process.

DeWeaver said his poem was born out of frustration with “the baseless narratives that people use and cling to as if they have legitimacy.” It portrays the contradictions in how the stories of Black men killed by police officers are told, and writing the piece gave him permission to be angry, he said. Kruzan described how her art was made organically. She acted as she felt moved to by her body and ultimately created a piece that helped her own and express her trauma. 

“Art is a process, and it is a process that offers more than just an end result,” Williams, who led the conversation with these artists, said in an interview. “It offers more than just a canvas filled with beautiful colors or imagery that speaks to us. It is about the time in which it was created, the space in which it was created, the conditions, the environment, the atmosphere. All of that is poured and it is forever tied into the thing that people say is art.”

This process is especially powerful for incarcerated people. The art from Prison Renaissance captures stories that most often go entirely untold: Photographer Eddie Herena, another artist featured in the exhibit, sought to capture the forgotten faces of people on the inside; Williams’ canvas told the story of George Stinney Jr., the youngest person to be convicted and executed in the country’s history — he was Black and only 14 years old. These stories need to be heard to understand the reality of the justice system in the United States, Williams said.

This is why Prison Renaissance partners with schools and institutes of higher education.

“In any human field, if you spend 10 years in something, almost and over 10 years you’re considered an expert,” Williams said. “For incarceration to be as popular as it is, everybody is an expert on what can deter violence, what can curb the school to prison pipeline, what can change the dynamics of our society.”

Williams said the law and the justice system cannot be understood by how it is portrayed in movies, TV, or even textbooks. “So when we think about younger people that are looking to expand their awareness, to heighten their knowledge when it comes to how the system is working, you need to have the voices of incarcerated people in there.”

One of the artists, Orlando Smith, is still completing his sentence at San Quentin, and, due to coronavirus-related phone restrictions, was unable to call into the event. His comics, which focus on Black people (unlike the ones he grew up reading), include “The Next Grueling Report: The Lost City of White Male Privilege,” which documents the COVID-19 pandemic from inside San Quentin.

Jason Perry’s painting “My Chained Response” depicts an unidentifiable Black man in handcuffs, reaching out, the lines of his palms starkly depicted. The piece was inspired by the killing of Tamir Rice, who was the same age as Perry’s own son at the time.

“Someone told me, ‘Hands are the things that change things, they sign bills into the law, they deliver babies, they make music,’” Perry said. “I want you to look at the hands more because when you handcuff these things, you handcuff my ability to provide my family, to make this nation strong.”

Williams and all of the other artists urged attendees to find their own art styles by practicing and owning their agency. “Our liberation comes into fruition when we are changing the narrative and the conditions that we are in,” Williams said. “[Liberation] has to be the act of something, not the end result. So I encourage people to find whatever that looks like for them, and free it, you know change it, make it grow, get rid of it, whatever it is that people need to do for themselves to take the initiative and to be ultimately that change that they need for their own worlds.”

The artists’ biographies can be found on the exhibition’s website, along with the rest of their pieces. Other opportunities to hear DeWeaver and Williams speak will take place between now and the end of November, as part of a season of exhibitions that will focus on systems from prisons to engineering, according to Simmons.   

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