Maybe it’s because Michelle Alexander delivered a stirring speech about mass incarceration as part of Vanderbilt's Martin Luther King Day programming. Or maybe it has something to do with professor Lisa Guenther, whose book Solitary Confinement: Social Death and its Afterlives was just released, and who facilitates a weekly discussion group at Nashville's Riverbend Maximum Security Prison. But for whatever reason, the subject of prisons and the lives of prisoners is getting a lot of exposure in Nashville’s art scene.
Earlier this year, Guenther curated an exhibition of art by death row inmates at Vanderbilt’s Sarratt Gallery. Exonerated prisoner Ndume Olatushani is currently exhibiting a collection of paintings he made while on death row. The just-opened More Love exhibit at Cheekwood includes a project by Luis Camnitzer that re-presents the last words of death row inmates. And Coop, the go-to downtown gallery for art lovers who want to sink their teeth into difficult subject matter, has an exhibit of art created by Watkins students, professors, and current death row prisoners.
Alicia Eler — art critic, curator, and contributor to Country Life favorite Hyperallergic — was in Nashville recently, and she wrote about what she found at Coop for the popular online arts magazine. Read excerpts from her article, "Dreaming on Death Row," after the jump.
The project sought to form connections between people on the outside — outsiders, as the prisoners call them — and insiders, the men inside who are scheduled for execution. The work in this exhibition, which includes drawings, paintings, collages, and photographs, presents a heart-wrenchingly honest portrait of our prison system, the people who are in it, and the opportunity for human connection regardless of the grim reality. The idea for this show came from the prisoners.
“Getting to know these men who, although they may have done a terrible thing, are more than the sum of their worst day,” says co-organizer Robin Paris, “they have taught us so much about community and about the importance of many things we might take for granted. They are people who, through bad luck, poverty, poor schools, bad decisions, are in this place, and it’s not hard to imagine that many of us could be in the very same place, but for our economic privilege.”
“It will go on as long as we can sustain it,” says Tom Williams. “The prisoners’ days are numbered, which is difficult to think about, but we’d like to work with them for a long time,” says Williams. “When you’re working with prisoners on death row, it’s often best to focus on the present.”
Read Eler's article on Hyperallergic, and see the exhibit for yourself at Coop — the gallery will be open on Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and a member of the group will be on hand to discuss the work.