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Philly artists are in the vanguard at MoMA exhibit on art in the age of mass incarceration

MoMA's show 'Marking Time' is making news globally. AAMP's 'Rendering Justice', opening this month, will also bring new visibility to people and perspectives hidden by the criminal justice system.

From the video "Ain't I a Woman" (2018) by Mary Enoch Elizabeth Baxter aka Isis the Savior
From the video "Ain't I a Woman" (2018) by Mary Enoch Elizabeth Baxter aka Isis the SaviorRead moreCourtesy of the artist

In 2007, Mary Enoch Elizabeth Baxter was arrested on the first day of the ninth month of her pregnancy. Three days later, after receiving little to eat and no prenatal care at Riverside Correctional Facility in Holmesburg, she went into labor. What followed was a nightmare: 43 hours of labor culminating in an emergency cesarean section, all while shackled to a hospital bed.

A decade later, Baxter recounted her experience in the powerful hip-hop narrative video, Ain’t I a Woman using rap and dramatic performance to tell a wrenching story about the harm caused by a punitive carceral system in the name of justice. (Shackling women during childbirth has been prohibited by law in Pennsylvania since 2010.)

In the 2018 video, Baxter reenacts the traumatic scene in an orange prison jumpsuit with the ruins of Eastern State Penitentiary as a backdrop. Intercut are loving photos of her with her son, with whom she was reunited after serving a seven-month sentence for drug and robbery charges. Producing the video marked a turning point in her post-incarceration journey to becoming a multimedia artist and activist for incarcerated women and mothers, also known as Isis Tha Saviour.

Now Baxter’s Ain’t I a Woman is part of an exhibition called “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration” at MoMA PS1 in Queens, N.Y., that is garnering national and international attention as a watershed project for social justice in art.

The exhibition features more than 40 artists and art collectives, several of whom have ties to Philadelphia and are known locally for their work bridging art and restorative justice. Along with Baxter, Russell Craig, whose recent mural celebrating Black Lives Matter protests adorns the Municipal Services Building, Jesse Krimes, and James “Yaya” Hough, the first-ever artist-in-residence for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, are highlighted.

» READ MORE: ‘Crown’ is the new mural on the Municipal Services Building that highlights Black Lives Matter protesters

Later this month, works by Baxter, Craig, and Hough will also be featured in Rendering Justice, an exhibition curated by Krimes for the African American Museum in Philadelphia (AAMP), scheduled to debut virtually Oct. 28. The exhibition celebrates the 2019 recipients of Mural Arts Philadelphia’s “Reimagining Reentry” fellowship and also includes artists Jared Owens, Michael TaBon, Reginald Dwayne Betts and Titus Kaphar, and Michelle C. Jones and Deborah Willis

Museums and prisons, in parallel

Both exhibitions arrive at a moment when the United States is reckoning with calls to reimagine policing and abolish prisons, and many institutions, including art museums, are grappling with their roles in systemic racism, present and historic. For Nicole R. Fleetwood, the Rutgers art history professor who curated Marking Time and authored the accompanying book, the two issues are interconnected.

“Museums and prisons are in some ways parallel institutions that were created as part of the establishment of Western democracies and how people are disciplined and educated to be citizen subjects,” Fleetwood says.

“Both are aesthetic projects around how we think people are to conduct themselves and who we value at any moment.”

In Philadelphia, the city’s built environment evokes that parallel history, Fleetwood says. The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the first art museum and school in the U.S., sits just over a mile from Eastern State Penitentiary, one of the first prisons built in the U.S. and a model for many others, now a historic site that advocates for criminal justice reform.

Fleetwood’s book delves deep into how these two seemingly separate realms intertwine. (AAMP is hosting a Zoom for a book club discussion of Marking Time on Oct. 30.)

She examines topics from the “carceral aesthetics” of artworks made under the material constraints of imprisonment to the complicated ethics surrounding prison-based programs run by arts nonprofits. The stirring central point of her book is that art made by people who’ve interacted with the criminal justice system is more than an outlet for personal expression — it’s also a means of repairing the relationships that are systematically destroyed by incarceration.

Art as a profound human bond

Krimes, whose Apokaluptein 16389067 is one of the most striking and ambitious works in the MoMA PS1 exhibition, agrees.

“What the prison system tries to do is remove you from the community, to shame you, to get you to buy into the idea that you are somehow deficient,” Krimes says. Through art, “we begin to formulate our own support networks, to form a family with certain bonds. It’s really kind of profound because it’s the only support system that exists in that environment.”

Krimes made the work between 2010 and 2013 while in federal prison. There, he and two other artists featured in the exhibition, Gilberto Rivera and Jared Owens (whose work is also included in Rendering Justice), created an artists' collective, pooling resources to share art magazines, materials, and feedback on each other’s work.

» READ MORE: 'Sistine Chapel of Prison Art' crafted by jailed artist to be displayed at Eastern State

The conceptual depth and sensory richness of their work eviscerates the idea that art made in and about prisons is in any way inferior to the art venerated in museums, galleries, or auction houses. Apokaluptein 16389067, which references Krimes' federal prison ID number and the Greek root of apocalypse, uses 39 prison bedsheets as a canvas for imagery drawn from newspapers and magazines. (Installed together, the sheets fill a 40-foot gallery wall.)

Transferred to fabric using hair gel and a plastic spoon, the images conjure a hyper-materialistic world composed of hell, earth, and a heaven populated by dancing angels — a sort of 21st-century Garden of Earthly Delights filtered through the austerity of incarceration.

The power of selfless art

For Russell Craig, the artist behind the recent mural at Philly’s Municipal Services Building, support came in the form of mentorship from James “Yaya” Hough. While both were incarcerated at Graterford Prison, Hough introduced Craig to the practice of drawing and painting on prison paperwork.

The concept led him to paint a poignant, large-scale self-portrait on a grid of the banal administrative documents and set him on a path of experimentation with found materials, Craig says.

For his latest works, on view in both Marking Time and Rendering Justice, Craig has pieced together fabric and deconstructed handbags (some made by incarcerated laborers) into shaped canvases for larger-than-life portraits of figures such as late rapper-activist Nipsey Hussle and Rodney Spivey-Jones, an incarcerated writer and subject of the PBS documentary series College Behind Bars.

(Like Spivey-Jones, who is still incarcerated and already graduated, Craig is working toward a degree through Bard College’s initiatives around prison education and reentry.)

Hough’s own work is more intimate and inwardly focused, translating the psychological horrors of imprisonment into a graphic novel-esque world. At MoMA PS1, a full gallery wall is devoted to dozens of his pen-and-ink drawings on pink, yellow, and white prison papers (envelopes, menus, policy change announcements).

The drawings teem with faceless figures being subjected to cruel and lewd acts by sadistic guards, at once disturbing and impossible to look away from. In one of his drawings in the AAMP exhibition, the outstretched arm of a Black man, etched with tattoos of insults and slurs, reaches out across a page from an inmate handbook.

When Hough was released from prison in 2019 after 27 years, his longtime association with Mural Arts Philadelphia’s Restorative Justice programs led to his residency with the DA’s Office. He also received a fellowship with Right of Return USA, a program created by Craig, Krimes, and the Soze Agency to support formerly incarcerated artists who make work intended to promote criminal justice reform. (Baxter, a previous recipient, used the fellowship funds to create her video.)

For Krimes, that network of opportunities is about creating something larger than individual artists' success.

“It’s a very selfless way to make artwork,” Krimes says. “So much artwork has been very individualistic, about the promotion of self and creating profits for self, whereas what we’re doing is trying to build a movement. If James is successful, I’m successful. So is Russell, and so is Mary.”

Despite pandemic delays, the results of Hough’s residency — 11 portraits of Philadelphians who range in age, race, gender. and socio-economic status, and who have all been impacted by the criminal justice system as returning citizens, survivors of crime, or legal professionals — are expected to be on display in various city buildings by the end of October.

Hough, who lives in Pittsburgh, commuted to Philadelphia to complete the residency and will return to conduct public walking tours of the project, which was funded by a private grant.

“My hope is when people see these portraits, they will see themselves reflected back," Hough says. "That sort of empathy is lacking in our society and in the city. That sort of empathy doesn’t allow for violence and harm to be dished out between people.”