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Last Friday the Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side hosted the opening of “On the Inside,” a group show of LGBTQ artists who are currently incarcerated. The show allows you to encounter the creative potential, pain, desire, beauty and resilience of people usually hidden from view.
“Art is a moment of escape,” explains Reverend Jason Lydon, an activist who works to abolish prisons. Lydon is the founder of Black & Pink, a group that seeks to connect LGBTQ people across prison walls. About four years ago, he met Tatiana Von Furstenberg, daughter of the fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg. Tatiana had contacted Black & Pink intending to apply for a pen-pal, but the collaboration took an unexpected direction. She ended up placing an ad in the organization’s monthly newsletter soliciting submissions for an art exhibit. More than four thousand pieces were submitted. Von Furstenberg framed about 400, a handful of which ended up on the gallery walls.
The bulk of the submissions turned out to be portraits. “Everyone wants to be seen, and everybody wants to be seen for who they are — not for a person in prison,” Von Furstenberg said during her opening remarks.
The exhibition is organized thematically, including sections on love and the need for touch, expressions of gender identity and sexiness, spirituality, warrior spirits and advocacy. Another portion of the exhibit is dedicated to celebrities (Rihanna was the most-frequently drawn submission in the category).
A small room has been constructed inside the middle of the gallery space, meant to model the dimensions of a solitary confinement cell. The show’s erotic and nude images are on display inside. In a report published last year, Black & Pink found that 85 percent of its members had been placed in isolation at some point during their sentence. LGBTQ people are particularly at risk of ending up in isolation as well as enduring a host of other abuses on the inside, including discrimination, harassment, and physical and sexual violence, both at the hands of staff and fellow prisoners.
Janetta Johnson is the Executive Director of the Transgender Gender Variant and Intersex (TGI) Justice Project, a San Francisco-based group that advocates for currently and formerly incarcerated trans women, and was also at the opening. “I’ve spent time in prison and I grieve because I know that I left people behind,” she said. “I still get to see a glimpse of them now, and I get to look at their art and be proud of them.”
Portraiture offers a particular avenue for transwomen artists who are locked up, explained Johnson, since they are frequently incarcerated in male facilities. Denied access to gender-affirming clothing, make-up and healthcare, it may only be on the page that transwomen can find representation as their full selves.
Being locked up creates all kinds of roadblocks for artists, noted Jennifer Mayo, 38, who spent 6 years on the inside and had a drawing included in the exhibition. Procuring the right materials can be difficult, if not impossible, and Mayo said she was fascinated to see what supplies other incarcerated artists had access to and how it shaped their work. One submission, a portrait of Marilyn Monroe, was airbushed using Koolaid and an asthma inhaler. Much of the work was submitted on discarded copy paper or on the back of manila legal folders, according to Von Furstenberg.
If creating the work and getting it to Von Furstenberg was difficult, so too was the process of securing a space to exhibit the collection. “Nobody wanted it,” she told the Voice.
“The art establishment has to support the specialness, or the terminal uniqueness, of the artist,” she explained. “I think this show takes that off the pedestal. I think its provocative in that way, or a little bit destabilizing.”
In that sense, “On the Inside” engages the viewer with the classical questions posed by outsider art. If certain populations have been historically excluded or rendered to the margins by the institutionalized art world, what does it mean to bring their work into gallery spaces?
For Lydon, the artwork also serves as a tangible praxis of abolitionism, a way for the artists to destabilize the prison industrial complex that governs their lives. A commissary slip or disciplinary form might be used to force you into a certain box in prison, he explained, “but you flip it on its backside, and it’s a blank sheet for you to create an image of yourself.”
“That’s what abolitionism is. These things that exist that are putting people in boxes, that are forcing people into devastating spaces — breaking those things down and creating something new. That’s what this art is.”
“On the Inside” will be on exhibit at the Abrons Arts Center from November 4 – December 18, 2016.