America will never regain true greatness as long as it remains the title-holder for having the largest prison population in the world. Along with those mass incarcerations come a litany of sins, including abuse of power, injustice, prejudice and broken families.
In assembling the "Walls Turned Sideways: Artists Confront the Justice System" exhibit for the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, Guest Curator Risa Puleo zoomed in on those artists who were not just commenting on our societal woes, but who also were effecting change.
"I wanted to think about artists who were using their artwork to engage with community rather than showing a problem," says Puleo. She calls to mind artists like Suzanne Lacy who, over a period of ten years, collaborated with adults and youth in the Oakland, California area to find a way to rebuild trust with police after 1992's Los Angeles riots. And Chicago artist/activist Mary Patten, organizer of the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials, who fought for the victims of police brutality.
"[Patten] and a group of lawyers and activists were able to shed light where this one police chief had been torturing arrested people," says Puleo."It was something that was hidden for decades. They were able to get a reparations package for those victims, the building of a trauma center, monetary retribution and a curriculum in the Chicago public school system to teach kids about the crimes so that history would not be forgotten."
More than 120 victims suffered at the hands of Chicago Police Department Commander Jon Burge and some of his subordinates, including kidnapping, electric shock, suffocation and beatings.
Depending on their locale, each artist brings a different perspective to their work. Josh Begley calls attention to how we warehouse prisoners off the beaten path, deep into rural areas. Begley turns the tables on this "out of sight, out of mind" mentality and uses Google analytics to show us these prisons in a bird's eye view that's vaguely reminiscent of the giant ground drawings by ancient Peruvians; while Maria Gaspar can't help but stare at Chicago's Cook County Jail, a behemoth that occupies 96 acres of land in the Little Village neighborhood.
Photography by Chandra McCormick and Keith Calhoun demonstrates that an extension of contemporary slavery still exists in Louisiana. "The very specific problem of the prison is that Louisiana State Penitentiary is built on a 19th century plantation. The plantation was called Angola because a lot of the slaves working there were from Angola," says Puleo. The prisoners, as part of their sentences, are asked to engage in unpaid labor in those very same fields where slaves toiled generations before.
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More than 100 objects by 40 artists will be on view in this exhibit, which is accompanied by cerebral programming that is designed to encourage dialogue within the community. Puleo will take us on a journey through the system, from being profiled to the arrest process, the court system and eventual incarceration where the only way out is death, the death penalty or release.
"Walls Turned Sideways: Artists Confront the Justice System" is scheduled for August 25, 2018 through January 6, 2019 at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 5216 Montrose Boulevard, open 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursdays, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturdays, noon-6 p.m. Sundays, 713-284-8250, camh.org, free.
Related events include:
August 24, 6:30-9 p.m., Opening reception
August 25, 2-3 p.m., In Conversation: CAMH Guest Curator Risa Puleo
August 25, 1-1:30 p.m. and 3:30-3:50 p.m., Performances of Candyland by Chapman Dance
August 30, 6:30-8:30 p.m., Screening of The Prison in Twelve Landscapes
September 12, noon-1 p.m., Art at Noon: Ray Hill and David Collingsworth of KPFT's The Prison Show
September 13, 6:30-7:30 p.m., Talk: Lines in the Landscape with Josh Begley
November 29, 6:30-7:30 p.m., Carceral Aesthetics: Prison Art and Mass Incarceration with Nicole R. Fleetwood
Check CAMH's website for additional related programming opportunities both on and off the CAMH campus.