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Constitution Hill in Johannesburg

31 Jul

Andy and I have traveled onward to Pretoria, South Africa because last night we saw Mating Birds by Lewis Nkosi— a prison-themed play at the State Theater. You’ll get the full report on that in a later post.

 

Here I am in part of the Old Fort section of the Constitution Hill prison in front of what looked like a little guard house.

Here I am in part of the Old Fort section of the Constitution Hill prison in front of what looked like a little guard house.

My last post introduced our trip to Constitution Hill, but I didn’t have the energy last night to finish the story or to convey how incredibly moving our trip to the former prison was. In a room just off the Visitor’s Center of the museum, a short film provides an introduction to the prison. The opening of the film shows formerly incarcerated men and women returning to Constitution Hill to visit the place where they had endured years of deprivation, humiliation, and even torture. The film asserts that in coming back to the prison, these people are “reclaiming their dignity.” Just as the museum serves to remind all visitors of South Africa’s troubled past, the formerly incarcerated are living evidence that such struggles are neither forgotten nor distant from the present day.

South Africa is currently celebrating twenty years since the fall of Apartheid in 1994–often labeled as “twenty years of democracy” in a number of tee shirts and banners that we’ve seen since our arrival here. The legacies of colonialism, segregation, and brutal oppression remain apparent here, as they do in my own country, and the divides created by this history are nowhere more apparent (in any country) than inside prisons. During Apartheid and in the present, blacks were and are incarcerated at disproportionate rates to their white counterparts (as has long been and remains the case in my country), and at Constitution Hill one can see quite clearly that blacks filled a far greater part of the prison and that whites had significantly superior living conditions.

Blanket sculptures of black male prisoners sleeping.

Blanket sculptures of black male prisoners sleeping.

We saw the black men’s section of the prison first. Despite the fact that some of the prison’s buildings no longer stand, we saw room after cement room where men slept like sardines in a can.  They had only blankets or thin pallets on which to sleep, and they were forced to sleep so close together that each man’s head was wedged between two sets of other people’s feet. An open toilet stands in the corner of each of these rooms, and the poorest and weakest men had to sleep nearest to the stench of the sewer. The museum has allowed the peeling paint, cold walls and floor to speak for themselves, adding little more than a few tasteful signs to help explain how the rooms were inhabited. Rough gray prison blankets with a few white stripes at each end have been made into skillfully constructed “blanket sculptures” to show where the bodies of the prisoners would have lain at night. These stand ins for actual people prove not only more artistic but also more moving than the tacky mannequins that dwell in so many museum tableaus. Constitution Hill prisoners actually made these sorts of blanket sculptures during their incarceration.  They also engaged in paper maché and other forms of sculpture.  The blanket sculptures on display at Constitution Hill’s museum today were made by two formerly incarcerated men who returned to contribute to this part of the museum.

100_1976Such evidence of participation by former prisoners in the curation of the museum appears throughout the many exhibits on Constitution Hill, as do opportunities for visitors to respond to what they are seeing. Message boards appear throughout the exhibits, posing specific questions to visitors and encouraging them to share their thoughts about things like whether the people described in the exhibit were unjustly imprisoned or what Ghandi’s most significant legacy to South Africa might be. The notion that visitors’ active participation in the museum, indeed in South Africa’s ongoing history, falls in line with the objectives of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s efforts to capture the experiences of everyday people alongside the largest events in South African civil unrest. Most of the visitors’ comments I read throughout Constitution Hill expressed gratitude for the museum itself and for the opportunity to learn about and share in the history recorded there.

Constitution Hill had quite a few isolation cells throughout its many buildings. In the white male section of the prison, the isolation cells had a small desk bolted to the wall and wooden floors. Nowhere in the prison did we see a bed. It seems that everyone slept on pallets or the gray wool blankets on the floor. The white prisoners’ isolation cells were stark and intimidating, even though they were about twice as large as the isolation cells for black men and women. I couldn’t help wondering what those slight differences would mean to a captive.  How much comfort and human dignity does a wooden floor lend as opposed to a cold concrete one? What fragment of one’s sanity and emotional stability might be better held in place by a few more feet of space in which to move?

The inside of the door to one of the isolation cells, covered in graffiti left by its inhabitants.

The inside of the door to one of the isolation cells, covered in graffiti left by its inhabitants.

I held myself together until we saw the black men’s isolation cells. As I have felt in most of the prisons I’ve visited around the world, there are places where the pain seems to radiate out of the walls and floor with a cold intensity. The walls have seen so much suffering that they appear to have absorbed it. We were able to walk inside the cells and close the doors behind us to have a clear sense of what the people who lived in this place endured. The back of each metal door was covered in writing etched in the paint. The small courtyard outside the isolation cells is covered by a network of barbed wire laid out in a grid so that even when you step out of isolation into the sun, there’s a cruel barrier between you and the sky.

In a separate area of the prison women served there time away from men. The isolation cells for black women now contain museum exhibits.  In front of each of the doorways to the cells, a large placard bears the photograph and a biographical sketch of one of the women who served time on this wing. Inside each cell a video monitor displays pieces of interviews done with the women featured on the placards, and beneath the video screens, artifacts of the women’s lives are on display. One woman says in her video that she had the most beautiful wedding dress imaginable, and she waited a very long time for her incarceration to end so that she could show it to her family. The bright yellow gown hangs in the cell beneath the video screen that plays her story.

I could tell you far more about this incredible museum and its moving tributes to its former inhabitants–particularly the poignant memorials to Ghandi and Mandela–but time and energy do not permit me to do so.  If you have the opportunity to visit Johannesburg, you should not miss Constitution Hill. The museum reminds all of us that our active participation is required in order for democracy to adequately function, much less flourish, and the exhibits at Constitution Hill encourage their viewers to grapple with notions of justice, freedom, and democracy because such things should never be taken for granted.

Andy and I have had quite a few more adventures since our trip to Constitution Hill, but they will have to wait for another blog post. We’ve been so busy that we’ve hardly had time or energy to write! More to come as soon as I am able. I’ll leave you tonight with one last image from Constitution Hill. These are the doors to the Constitutional Court, home of South Africa’s Constitution and one of the country’s greatest symbols of democracy. The door is carved with the twenty-seven rights guaranteed by the nation’s constitution, and the rights are written in a variety of languages, including sign language. May we each take a page out of the South Africans’ book and reflect on the rights that we have and on the struggles of those who have been and are being denied human and civil rights.

100_1977

The Atonement Project: Restorative Justice and the Arts

10 Feb

The Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) is excited to announce an opportunity to be part of its new Atonement Project initiative—an arts-based restorative justice program that seeks to start meaningful conversations about crime, incarceration, and reconciliation.

Anyone whose life has been touched by crime or incarceration in any way is invited to join a weekly Atonement Project arts workshop in either Detroit or Lansing. Workshops are facilitated by University of Michigan students enrolled in PCAP Director Ashley Lucas’ Atonement Project course. Workshops began February 1 (Detroit) and February 4 (Lansing) and run for 12 weeks. Contact Ashley Lucas at lucasash@umich.edu for more information or to register. You are welcome to join even if you already missed the first weeks of the workshop.

Project Description

The Atonement Project is an innovative, arts-based approach to addressing issues that many crime victims and people who have committed crimes find difficult to discuss (i.e. forgiveness and reconciliation). We wish to create spaces, both through an interactive website and through arts workshops in prisons and in communities affected by crime, where the arts and creativity can help us bridge the divides created by crime and incarceration. The ultimate goal of the Atonement Project is to bring together people whose lives have been shaped by crime so that we can join our efforts to prevent further harm to our families, loved ones, and communities.

Drawing on a broad variety of art forms, including visual art, creative writing, theater, music, poetry, and dance, the Atonement Project uses creative expression to engage participants in tough conversations about crime, punishment, and reconciliation. Technology, including the Atonement Project website, video, digital photography, social media, and interactive online tools will enable web users to have access to the products of our arts workshops and participate in larger conversations about forgiveness and atonement.

The use of creativity and art in examining issues related to atonement and reconciliation is a central component of the Atonement Project. Many people respond more openly to and are able to connect with the experiences of others when they read their stories and experience visual art. The art created in our workshops and displayed on our website will focus on the following three areas of the atonement process:

  • Acknowledgement: Recognizing how we have hurt and how we have been hurt by others.
  • Apology: Apologizing to those we have hurt, and apologizing to ourselves for the hurt we have caused ourselves.
  • Atonement: Atoning through direct actions in our community, with people we have hurt as well as ourselves.

Community Workshops

Anyone whose life has been touched by crime or incarceration in any way is welcome to participate in community workshops, and there is no cost involved in participation. Workshops will take place once a week for two hours and will run for twelve weeks. We ask that participants try to come to all workshops, but we understand that not everyone who participates will be able to attend every single week.

Each workshop will be a space for participants to collaborate as a group on creative writing, performance, and/or visual art. No prior artistic training or previous affiliation with PCAP is required. Everyone is welcome, and no particular skill set is necessary for participation.

Detroit Workshop

Saturdays, 1-3pm

February 1-April 19, 2014

U-M Detroit Center (South Studio)

3663 Woodward Ave, Detroit, MI 48201

Lansing Workshop

Tuesdays, 6:30-8:30pm

February 4-April 22, 2014

Michigan State University

Snyder-Phillips Hall C301
362 Bogue Street (close to the intersection of Bogue and Grand River)
East Lansing, MI 48825

Contact Ashley Lucas at lucasash@umich.edu to register.

About the Prison Creative Arts Project

The Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) was founded in 1990 with the mission to collaborate with incarcerated adults, incarcerated youth, urban youth and the formerly incarcerated to strengthen our community through creative expression. Housed in the University of Michigan’s Residential College, faculty and students work with community members both inside and outside prisons to engage in theatre, dance, visual art, creative writing, slam poetry, and music.

More information, including a link to the Atonement Project website (which we hope to launch later this month) will appear on this blog soon.

Meanwhile, my dear friend Margarita Mooney (a sociologist at Yale) visited our class and wrote a fantastic blog entry of her own that explains our work beautifully.  Thank you, Margarita, for your support of the Atonement Project and for your wonderful visit to the Atonement Project class!

PCAP Linkage Art Exhibition, April 20 to May 5, 2012 in Holland, MI

23 Apr

The Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) is an amazing program at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, that takes undergrads into prisons, juvenile facilities, and urban high schools throughout Michigan to conduct collaborative arts workshops.  One of their other programs, the PCAP Linkage Project supports formerly incarcerated artists, writers, actors, dancers, and musicians who worked with PCAP during their imprisonment.  Working with returning citizens is far more difficult than working with folks in prison.  Though life in prison is terribly unpleasant, the incarcerated don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, how they’ll find work and make an income, or where they will sleep that night.  Returning citizens often find the free world very changed from what they knew before they entered prison, and those of them who became artists while in prison struggle to continue working creatively after their release because other concerns take precedence over the desire to make art.

On April 5, 2012, the PCAP Linkage Project held an amazing conference, organized by staff member Heather Wilson, for formerly incarcerated artists.  I had the privilege of getting to attend the day’s events in Detroit, meet the artists, and see some of their work.  Many of the artists brought drawings and paintings to the conference, and all the works of art collected that day are now on display at the Ridge Point Community Church at 340 104th Avenue in Holland, MI.  (That’s in the western part of the state, not far from Grand Rapids.)  Click here for more information about the exhibition which runs from now until May 5, 2012.  If you’re out in that neck of the woods, don’t pass up the opportunity to see these wonderful works of art.

17th Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners

14 Mar

The 17th Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners

March 20-April 4, 2012

Opening Reception: March 20, 5:30-8 pm

Duderstadt Center Gallery

University of Michigan North Campus

2281 Bonisteel Blvd.

Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Gallery Hours:

Tue-Sat 10 am – 7 pm

Sun-Mon 12 pm – 6 pm

Prison Creative Arts Project

for more information about our event schedule, visit www.prisonarts.org

“I believe that your program gives the public a glimpse into the type of things that inspire even the most downtrodden of us all. When people see our work, for a few moments they forget that this work was done by a felon, but by another human being. A human being who has the same thoughts, emotions, and inspirations as they do, and for that one moment, a major social and political barrier is shattered.”

— Anonymous artist featured in the exhibition

If Walls Could Talk: A Mural Project with Incarcerated Mothers and Their Children, a post by Ashley Lucas

3 Jan

My former student Jamila Reddy just sent me this link to a website about a proposed mural project with incarcerated mothers at Riker’s Island and their children.  The incarcerated mothers will create an image which their children will paint in East Harlem, and the children will create an image which their mothers will paint inside the prison.  The video on the website shows artist Katie Yamasaki’s incredible previous mural work, which is very socially engaged.  She has collaborated with communities of women all over the world, and this project promises to produce amazing results as well.  Yamasaki is trying to raise the funds necessary to make these murals a reality.  This is the kind of place where I wish my tax dollars were going.  Very few activists or artists have such excellent ideas for connecting communities separated by prison walls.  Yamasaki’s efforts are inspiring and inspired.  Do not miss the chance to support this incredible work!

“Razor Wire Women Transfixed”: Drawing and Poem by Valencia C.

2 Nov

How much longer
will the night last?
Nightmares cost lives
but sweet dreams are priceless.
A dream that will sweep you away
perhaps is your wish,
to take you to a place
where loved ones are kept
Keep on wishing then. . .
Therefore it all means hope
and not everything is yet lost.
After all you will reunite
with the ones you most want.
From that world apart
were captured; they still are.
There, time has been upheld
So the dark night slowly flows
and hours are continuously spent
yearning for twilight.

Connie Convicta Comics, Episode 14, by Ana Lucia Gelabert

19 Oct

Comics from this same series appear in the book RWW as well as elsewhere on this websiteAna Lucia Gelabert continues to draw her comics from inside a Texas prison.

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