The obstacles faced by the more than 2.3 million incarcerated people in the United States today are enormous, and the consequences of the prison system are felt by whole communities, families, and the 5 million children who have at least one parent either currently or previously imprisoned.
Of course, the prison walls themselves are only a small part of this complex web of systematic oppression, which extends long after release and has outsize psychological and social consequences for people of color, the poor, and the mentally ill. Thanks to real policy and entrenched patterns such as the school-to-prison pipeline, incarceration creeps into almost every aspect of American life, from corporations that are held up with cheap labor, to the rich people who get richer with stock options for companies operating within the prison industrial complex, to the revival of the debtors’ prison via the privatization of parole and probation, to the civic indignity of losing rights that the rest of us are guaranteed as citizens of a “democratic” nation.
Bleak enough for you? Well, when you consider what all of this means for prisoners who happen to be LGBTQ, go ahead and multiply everything terrible by a whole lot. By nearly every measure, when it comes to prison, LGBTQ people have it worse than anyone else. “It’s a million other things,” Tatiana Von Furstenberg explained. As curator of On the Inside, a new exhibition on view at Abrons Art Center, the art and theatre wing of Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side, she’s selected 450 works of art, all made by LGBTQ artists who are currently serving time. These artists have experienced the dismal statistics first-hand, and the show refuses to mince words about the realities of incarceration.
In the exhibition’s main room sits a stack of stapled newsprint packets, rendered in the typical, bland style of non-profit social justice studies, only in bright pink and black. Tatiana made a point of picking up a copy of the booklet, and she urgently pushed it in my direction as soon as I arrived at Abrons.
Though we only know them by their first name and last initial, the artists included in the show are young and old, black and white, trans and Two Spirit, and yet they are all marginalized in their queerness, as the booklet details. The report contained inside was put out by Black & Pink, an advocacy organization and newsletter that supports LGBTQ people in prison, which included the results of a 2014 survey of more than 1,000 of their currently incarcerated LGBTQ respondents. The resulting numbers illustrate the myriad ways in which LGBTQ prisoners are left behind before, during, and after incarceration.
- A whopping 71 percent either dropped out of school, were expelled, or never even went to school.
- 39 percent “have traded sex for survival.”
- More than one-third were unemployed before they went to prison (that’s seven times the national rate of unemployment in 2014).
- Respondents were serving “life sentences at twice the rate” of the rest of the state and federal prison population.
- 85 percent have spent time in solitary confinement, all told the 1,118 respondents had spent 5,1110 years in solitary as of 2014.
- They were 6 times more likely to be sexually assaulted, and those who had been assaulted by another prisoner, 76 percent “report that prison staff intentionally placed them in situations where they would be at high risk of sexual assault.”
It’s important to know the facts, but the study, like most studies, was conducted and packaged at a certain remove from the people in question. Depressingly, these sorts of numbers are out there and have been out there, and yet they’ve done little to affect change. True, organizations like Black & Pink are helping to address these issues and support this underserved population in invaluable ways, but getting most people– especially those who believe their lives to be untouched by prison– to actually care, depends on whether or not they can grasp that behind each number is a real human.
“My intention was awareness, to get people to come here and learn about this issue,” Tatiana explained. “We’re taught to believe these people are dangerous and that we need to get them off the streets. It’s just not true that we’re giving birth to more criminals.”
Functioning as a bridge between statistics and actual people, On the Inside is almost hyper-human– the gallery space feels as if it’s overflowing with artwork, all of it depicting the human form (or in some cases “fairies and spirits and mermaids, stuff about gender polarity”). Most of the pieces are quite small, not much larger than a sheet of computer paper, and because they’re so personal, and so densely arranged, it almost feels like you’re walking through one of those stereotypical prison scenes you see in the movies, but instead of wild-eyed maniacs hurling shanks and threats, the prisoners are flinging their backstories at you, their hopes and dreams for who they really are and will continue being when they finally get out of here, and regardless of whether they are released or not.
That’s exactly how Tatiana must have felt when she started receiving the work, which came in as a massive wave. A few years ago, she made a “pledge” on social media. ‘”You’re supposed to do an act of love every day from Martin Luther King’s birthday to Valentines Day, it’s 30 days,” she explained. Her search brought her to Black & Pink’s “amazing pen pal matching service” which she leafed through, but instead of finding one or two pen pals, she found an impressive assortment of art work. After placing an ad in the back pages, Tatiana has sorted through more than 4,000 submissions she’s received over the last few years.
The respondents’ humanity is undeniable here, and it’s easy to see why Tatiana was so inspired by what she saw. The faces and people depicted in the work were essentially Tatiana’s first introduction to the harsh realities of the U.S. prison system. “I mean, I didn’t know anything about this industrialization of people [in prison], I didn’t know anything about prison. I had no idea,” she admitted.
That’s not exactly hard to believe, considering that Tatiana, the daughter of Diane Von Furstenberg, the legendary fashion designer, is best known for her 2011 film Tanner Hall, about a clique of friends coming of age at an uber-privileged all-girls boarding school. She co-directed the film with her childhood friend, Francesca Gregorini, who also happens to be Bond Girl progeny and the step-daughter of Ringo Starr. They loosely based the script on their own experiences as teenagers at a tony English boarding school. The Times scoffed that Tanner Hall was an “uneven drama” about a bunch of “coddled young people indulging themselves in opulent surroundings.”
When we spoke, Tatiana volunteered an explanation of sorts. “After I made Tanner Hall, I wasn’t really sure why I’d done that. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do it again.” The deeper impulse underlying her filmmaking, however, was what stuck around.
“I’ve always been a storyteller,” she said. “You can cultivate the culture of compassion and inclusion that you want to see through storytelling because you can actually make a human connection. The narrative, I think, is really clear.”
What’s immediately apparent is that, despite the range in style, the works share some basic features. Tatiana was most struck by the fact that of the submissions she received, nearly all of them were portraits. “To me, that says that there’s actual, emotional, direct human themes that really wanted to be expressed,” she said. “If you come and see this show, you’ll realize that there’s poetry, humanity, complexity, technique, major talent.”
Resourcefulness is another common feature. “All of the art is Bic pen or pencil on copy paper,” Tatiana explained. The work is framed for the most part, but if you caught a glimpse of the back, in many cases you’d find a prison form or discarded document of some sort. “You have to know that the art is usually done on paper pulled from the trash,” she said, wide-eyed.
Behind a glass display case, there’s the only 3D object in the entire show: a heavy, bound book by Joseph A. that looks almost like a wizard’s manual for magic spells. Surely that title, Dark Stoopid Coloring Book for Lunatics, was to protect what’s inside. The dimensions are off, the corners imperfect: a dead giveaway for a handmade book. Tatiana said that it was “glued together with powdered milk,” and we both paused for a moment of silent awe and respect.
This kind of ingenuity, combined with a level of detail and craft that can only be realized through serious time commitment and patient, tedious chipping-away, calls to mind the work on display at Escaping Time, a rotating show that spotlights prison art and was last held on Governor’s Island this past summer.
But there’s a certain level of aesthetic similarity exhibited across this show that wasn’t seen at Escaping Time. That can only be partly owed to the fact that every artist here shares at least a baseline of similar constraints: a surplus of time, a lack of materials and art programs, and limited resources for imagery, since most of the incarcerated artists of the Governor’s Island show were working under the same conditions.
At On the Inside, there’s a real emphasis on beauty, a hopeful belief in its inviolability, and a certain dreamy glow to each and every piece that wasn’t necessarily true across the board at Escaping Time– whether it’s a portrait of a trans warrior princess or a beautifully defeated self-portrait with the words “God Hates Me.”
“There’s no irony, no conceptual interpretation,” Tatiana observed. “It’s very direct, it’s very genuine, it’s very real.”
Above immediately physical aspects and form, much of the work feels as if it were produced inside a pressure cooker: the feelings are intense, fantasies are raw and unbridled, and exploration of the self seems remarkably unimpeded.
On the other hand, there’s a range of emotional flashpoints. There’s a whole wall dedicated to spirituality, dominated by the figure of Jesus, which might seem surprising given the usual attitude of Christianity toward LGBTQ and the aggressive homophobia preached by many sects.
“Jesus’s body was brutalized and murdered like many other queer bodies have been,” Tatiana offered. “So sometimes it’s a faith thing when it comes to spirituality, but sometimes it’s just connecting to Jesus as a marginalized person who was violated.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s a distinct obsession with pop culture. The most jaw-dropping, hands-down amazing thematic galaxy is Rihanna– portraits of the pop star take up a whole wall. “The very top winner, the most beloved person is Rihanna,” Tatiana explained. “I think it’s because she’s both strong and vulnerable.”
The most emotive works, however, are the self-portraits. “Very few of them are set in prison, very few are in prison uniform. these a are sole expressions, as they identify for real: as artists, LGBT people, human beings,” Tatiana said. “These are their actual selves, the other things are just circumstance.”
The part of the show dedicated to sexuality–nudes, for the most part–essentially had to be black-barred to make the environment appropriate for school groups, according to Tatiana. But she turned the censorship into an opportunity to construct a walled-in gallery within the gallery: “It’s the same dimensions as a prison cell,” she explained, pointing to the narrow room the size of an extra-large cubicle. “That’s usually four people and a bathroom.”
It’s not just gimmicky, either: standing inside the space, surrounded by erotica and naked bodies, might get you thinking about sexuality and desire (maybe), but more importantly what all of that means within such a physically and psychologically tight environment. All of this hints toward the unrealistic, often morally imposed standards of prison that ram up against the messy, complex realities of human nature.
As the Black & Pink study demonstrates, though 70 percent of respondents indicated they were sexually active, a dismal 2 percent are allowed access to condoms by their facilities. There are other means of obtaining protection through the prison black market, still just 22 percent have used a condom.
For all the heavy themes and serious issues, the most remarkable thing about the artwork is that most of it feels really fresh and optimistic, like the people creating it are showing themselves as they would be if they’d never even gone to prison. Though the work was created by embattled people, they are nevertheless capable of confidence. Their resilience and ability to retain their true selves, despite their dehumanizing and oppressive circumstances, is an act of resistance in itself.
“There’s very little violence, very little hate, very little anger or defeat– almost the opposite, like actually no: this is really me, I wear speedos and I look great,” Tatiana laughed. “This is who I really am, I’m a badass.”
Tatiana was careful to point out that none of the work is for sale. “I don’t want the commodification of LGBT prison art to be the next hip thing. That is not my intention at all,” she said. “What I really wanted to show was that, these are artists first and foremost and they just happen to be incarcerated and this is their art show in New York, period.”
All the talk of empowerment and self-expression is not just lip service. Tatiana really has stepped aside as a curator and allowed the artists to speak for themselves in ways that are refreshingly real. Quotes directly from the artists’ letters are pasted on the walls, and though some might be on the watery, pseudo-philosophical side, they feel more genuine than the usual artist-statement fare of stilted descriptions that are not only clogged with mucky language and inscrutable theory but that are always, always boring.
Tatiana went the extra mile, though, and has set up a way for visitors to text each and every artist. No one has access to a phone or computer, but the texts will be printed out and delivered to the artist. Visitors can decide whether or not to include their address in hopes of further correspondence. Tatiana reminded me to do this several times before I left, and after seeing the work, it became clear that it might be the most important part of the show, and the key to the commonality behind the work– what starts to come across as an eerie chorus, a synchronized, silent scream from another dimension.
“That’s what really struck me about the art work,” Tatiana said. “There’s this need to be seen.”
‘”On the Inside” is on view at Abrons Art Center, 466 Grand Street, now through December 28.