I like to think of exhibitions focused on specific political causes as agitprop. This assumes that the exhibition has not only the affirmative goal of engaging with that cause, but the logistical goal of inspiring action beyond the gallery. On the Inside: A Group Show of LGBTQ Artists Who Are Currently Incarcerated, on view at Abrons Arts Center on New York’s Lower East Side through Dec. 18, functions in exactly this way. On the Inside demonstrates the effulgent humanity and artistic expression of an often-dehumanized and invisible population and, at the same time, cultivates consciousness raising, deep compassion and, ideally, action from the exhibition’s visitors.
“Don’t look up at artists; don’t look down at people.”
And the exhibition itself is astonishing. There are 450 drawings on view—selected from more than 4,000 individual submissions—representing a remarkable range and variety in terms of both subject matter and artistic style. The show was organized over many years by artist/filmmaker/curator Tatiana von Fürstenberg in collaboration the organization Black and Pink, a prison abolition advocacy group made up of LGBTQ prisoners and “free world” allies. The Black and Pink monthly newspaper is where von Fürstenberg originally discovered some of the prisoner members’ impressive artwork. She articulated the basic philosophy underpinning the show: “Don’t look up at artists; don’t look down at people.” That is to say, being an artist is not some special, rarified status, above everyone else; and prisoners are people, just like everyone else.
A lot of the work is raw and intense. There are many images of faces staring straight out of the frame, engaging the viewer with emotional empathy. The drawings include a lot of small moments, keenly observed and depicted creatively, respectfully and intimately. Certainly not all, but many of the artists are untrained in art making. Too often, exhibitions of self-taught art are directed at the artworld viewer, taking the artwork out of any context. On the Inside makes a clear effort to focus the show toward supporting the artists and keeping the images grounded in the specificity of their prison origins.
One of many indignities and deprivations of prison life is the scarcity of art supplies. At the preview I attended, Jennifer Mayo, a formerly-incarcerated artist with drawings in On the Inside, spoke movingly about how much more difficult everything in prison is. Most of the images in the show are on standard printer paper and in dull pencil (not artist’s charcoal) or ball point ink—but just from the ink tube, the rigid plastic casing for pens are too easily potentially weaponized. However, what also comes across is the spirit of creativity and ingenuity. Some of the drawings are enhanced with materials like deodorant, candy color harvested from actual candy or Kool-Aid blown through an asthma inhaler to produce an airbrush effect.
On the Inside is overwhelmingly composed of portraits of various types—self-portraits, lovers’ portraits, celebrity and historical figure portraits (There is a whole wall of Rihanna!) inspirational and religious portraits, two-spirit portraits, idealized portraits, fantastical portraits (note the fairy wings in the image at the top of this page) and on and on. This diversity among the work is one of the most exciting and impressive aspects of the show. For the incarcerated trans artists, especially, the opportunity to represent themselves as they wish to see themselves—prison substantially complicates and limits expressing one’s gender identity—becomes vital and profound. You can see many more images from the show here.
The focus on portraiture and diversity relates to many of the artists’ concerns about identity. Being incarcerated while LGBTQ is extraordinarily difficult. LGBTQ inmates are less likely to have support from their families on the outside, are more likely to be abused by other prisoners as well as by guards, may have grown up in environments that punished queerness, and, on top of that, often also struggle with additional, intersectional issues, such as racial discrimination, transphobia, poverty, HIV/AIDS, addiction, etc.
“Our hope is secured in the birth of queers.”
The organizers and Black and Pink are very clear about their horror at the prison industrial complex; this is built into the exhibition design. The drawings are hung on walls with enlarged graphics from the images creating an active and contextual background. There are also poignant and beautiful quotations from some of the letters that were enclosed with the submitted artwork (all the artwork and communication had to travel by physical mail; inmates do not have access to digital communication). A few examples:
I have been stripped of all my property, clothing, mat, and left to sleep on a steel bunk in 30 degree weather. I’ve been harassed time and time again for my identity, being a flamboyant fem gay. But still I stand, I won’t bend and I won’t break, I am proud of who I am, I carry myself with gay pride 24/7.
Despite all the teasing and torment a transgender copes with every day, when the moment was right to draw this portrait the beauty of simply being a human being came out.
— Tony B.
Our hope is secured in the birth of queers.
— John L.
In the center of the gallery, there is a small room built to the exact dimensions of a solitary confinement cell; it is jarringly small. Inside, a few of the more anatomically or sexually explicit drawings in the exhibition are kept out of view of the many children who spend time at Abrons. The outside, though, is covered with information: issues contributing to incarceration, goals for redress, etc. These are the findings of a survey of more than 1,000 prisoners developed and collected by Black and Pink. It is a powerful public policy statement literally embodying part of the institution it aims to dismantle. This solitary cell is a teaching tool about how homelessness, unemployment, the war on drugs, prison sentencing, healthcare, violence, etc. contribute to LGBTQ prisoners’ real experiences.
On the Inside is a powerful, fascinating show of amazing drawings. It is about the deceptively modest gesture of an individual in bad circumstances using art to improve their constricted world and to reach out to the larger one. Moreover, it is about those individuals coming together collectively for their artwork to communicate more and more insistently to the larger world and to bring about change for the artists, all of their fellow inmates and the whole unjust, brutal, insane prison system.
On the Inside is also a call to action—and one that is difficult to ignore in the presence of those penetrating images. At the preview, Janetta Johnson, Executive Director of the Transgender, Gender Variant & Intersex Justice Project and a formerly-incarcerated trans woman, made an eloquent statement encouraging visitors to take up the fight to recognize and support the humanity of all prisoners. She asked the rest of us to hear and respect prisoners’ stories and to support their art and their lives. In particular, she urged people to get involved and offer help before someone ends up going to prison, as well as afterwards, as they struggle to transition out into the “free world.”
Johnson and Black and Pink called for more pen pals for prisoners. On the Inside includes a text messaging system that facilitates an opportunity for visitors to the exhibition to communicate with the incarcerated artists and offer much-needed encouragement—and perhaps become pen pals! Copies of Coming Out of Concrete Closets: A Report on Black & Pink’s National LGBTQ Prisoner Survey are available in the gallery or can be downloaded here. You can support Black and Pink here.
A panel discussion, “Taking Action for Prisoner Justice,” will take place on Nov. 14, 6–9 pm:
“This evening’s panel of LGBTQ community organizers and leaders in the movement for prisoner justice will offer concrete ways for attendees to go beyond the art and move into action.”