Wednesday, March 05, 2008

California Prison Culture

Saturday morning I finally got to visit the Criminal: Art and Criminal Justice in America exhibit at San Francisco State's Fine Arts Gallery. There was also a symposium: California Prison Culture: Art, Issues and Dialogue. I stayed for a few hours, walked through the exhibition, listened to Angela Y. Davis give the keynote, then got in the car and ran over to the 509 Gallery on Ellis to see the Haitian artist’s mixed media exhibit, before heading over to San Pablo to a divorcee party, not really, it was a house blessing, the blessing –-the divorce. The 509 Gallery was really nice, especially the outdoor gallery which included large murals on the surrounding buildings covering the height and breath of a few. There was also a community garden, a living camera under construction, trees, a stage and a pond for fish. Darryl, gallery curator and artist showed me around. Inside the Haitian art was cinema verite along with large paintings, sacred figures like the snake or dambala on bottles and candles.

After the sister circle in San Pablo I went to my friend Tomye's birthday party. The evening before I'd gone to see a play at the Multi-Ethnic Theatre at The Next Stage, “A Secret for Next Sunday.” Written by Charles Johnson, no not the author of Middle Passage, it starred a good friend, Judith Sims as Mattie. It wasn’t the story of two old guys about to die—what’s the name of that movie? No one was rich. But it was the story of two old guys with a secret one couldn’t let go.

“Criminal” is not a large exhibit but it certainly is an emotional one, I didn’t allow myself to participate in. I stayed objective, although the plates with last meals etched into the designs –the shear multitude of the display and then to hear the audio –a woman’s voice reading off the inmates name and what he ate, was a bit much. They were such pretty ceramic plates too, the blue design. Then there was the architectural mapping of cell design—spread out in the center of the gallery the walls were flat and we could walk through the design. “The House that Herman Build,” was playing in an adjoining gallery, while one could hear audio of Robert H. King in the background. One also heard lions roaring…the gallery director told me not to worry, there were no lions loose. (The SF Zoo is nearby.) Artist Richard Kamler's "The Sound of Lions Roaring... Revisited" (with sound by Blaise Smith) referenced the artist’s 1992 broadcast of lions roaring to protest the execution of an inmate at San Quentin. He was cited by the coast guard for disturbing the peace an article posted states. There was another audio installation accompanying a cartoon depiction of the OJ Simpson verdict. There were painting of inmates in sexual positions. Painted in a lighthearted style the seriousness of alternative life styles and the potential for injury and exploitation was masked, yet present at the same time. Rigo 23’s rendition of Tookie Williams covered a wall, while on the other end, William Pope L.’s “Setting the Table,” depicted 19 photos of alleged terrorists circulated to media. The artist printed the prisoner’s faces on bologna and then hung them up to dry. Dread Scott’s Lockdown is another interesting work. His portraits of the men on lockdown and their stories offers another perspective on the complex prison discussion created here. Another work I really found provocative was Sandow Birk’s paintings of the landscape surrounding San Quentin, minus the prison. It is so beautiful, too beautiful to have such a horrible blight like a maximum state prison in its midst. Like the lives behind the walls, it’s such wasted potential. Imagine if the men were free to meditate along the ocean path, garden and live in nature –true rehabilitation might be possible, even desired.

Angela Davis in her talk referenced the recent Pew report about prisons: one in every 99.1 adults is locked up, 1 in every 9 African American men ages 20-34. She spoke of the privatization of prisons, especially those in Hawaii where real estate is too expensive to build there so prisoners are shipped to the mainland to special prisons just for them. "Criminal" closes March 15. Visit or call (415) 338-6535. The Fine Arts Gallery at San Francisco State University, 1600 Holloway Avenue, has free admission.

Photos: SFSU exhibit. Pictured is Robert H. King with Angela Y. Davis, both were presenters at the conference this weekend. Robert H. King's voice is heard in the exhibit referencing Angola State Prison where two of the Angola 3, Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace remain behind bars and in solitary confinement, 35 years now. King was released in 2001 after serving 29 years in solitary confinement, 31 years in total. His case was dismissed, but he had to plea to a lesser charge so he wouldn't sue the state of Louisiana for false imprisonment.


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