Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration

The David Winton Bell Gallery at Brown University has opened Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, an acclaimed exhibition exploring the profound cultural influence of the U.S. prison system through the work of artists who are or have been incarcerated, alongside work by advocates and family members affected by carceral systems. Seen together, the works explore how predatory policing, surveillance, and mass imprisonment impact everyday life for millions of people, offering new ways to envision art and to understand the reach and effects of the U.S. carceral state.

Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration is organized by curator Dr. Nicole R. Fleetwood, NYU Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication, and exhibition coordinator Steven G. Fullwood, an archivist, writer, curator, and visual artist; with the support of NYU graduate researchers Anisa Jackson and Xavier Hadley. Originally debuted at MoMA PS1 in 2020, Marking Time is on view in Providence through December 18, 2022. 

The works in the exhibition explore how incarceration transforms the fundamentals of living—time, space, and matter—and reimagine these changes to create new aesthetic possibilities. These artworks illuminate what curator Fleetwood calls “carceral aesthetics,” relational and artistic experiments that challenge the “inside/outside” logic of imprisonment through innovative modes of relating that refute the dehumanization, isolation, and erasure that prisons engender. This includes the use of creative, found materials such as gum wrappers and commissary papers in many of the artists’ works, which were often created covertly—fulfilling a desire to create and express despite the risk of potential retribution. As someone who was herself affected by the prison system, Fleetwood conceived this project with a desire to reshape the general understanding of the impact of incarceration and how it transforms people’s perspectives.  

“I think one of the most insidious ways that the carceral system impacts most people in the U.S. is the ease with which we accept punitive governance as a way of life,” Fleetwood said. “We live under the constant threat of being punished for all kinds of matters big and small — not paying a bill on time, sending our children to school late, not filing a form in a certain way. I hope that that people walk away with more concern about, and dare I say curiosity to explore, the depth, reaches and entanglements of the carceral system, and that they feel emboldened to hold accountable entities that benefit from punishment industries.” 

Community programs will complement the exhibition throughout the fall, including artist-led tours, discussion panels, film screenings, and more. Lisa Biggs, an assistant professor of the arts and Africana Studies at Brown, is organizing a corresponding fall discussion about the criminal legal system’s impact on Rhode Island families, and is also spearheading an effort to purchase and distribute children’s books about the challenges families face when they are separated by incarceration, created by organizer and educator Mariame Kaba. Biggs is also working with the university’s John Hay Library to mount a related fall exhibition of poetry by current and formerly incarcerated people.

About Dr. Nicole R. Fleetwood 

Nicole R. Fleetwood is the inaugural James Weldon Johnson Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication in the Steinhardt School at New York University. A MacArthur Fellow, she is a writer, curator, and art critic whose interests are in contemporary Black diasporic art and visual culture, photography studies, art and public practice, performance studies, gender and feminist studies, Black cultural history, creative nonfiction, prison abolition and carceral studies, and poverty studies.

She is the author of Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration (Harvard University Press, 2020), winner of the National Book Critics Award in Criticism, the John Hope Franklin Publication Prize of the American Studies Association, the Susanne M. Glasscock Humanities Book Prize for Interdisciplinary Scholarship, and both the Charles Rufus Morey Book Award in art history and the Frank Jewett Mather Award in art criticism. 

About the Bell Gallery 

The David Winton Bell Gallery is Brown’s contemporary art gallery and home to an important part of the university’s permanent art collection. Founded in 1971, the Gallery hosts four to five major exhibitions per year, each with associated programming including lectures, performances, and symposia, and maintains a permanent collection of more than 7,000 works of art, dating from the 16th century to the present, with particularly rich holdings in 20th and 21st century works on paper.

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