America has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world—more than 2 million people, according a 2018 report by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Life behind bars is traumatic, even more so for LGBTQ prisoners who are at greater risk for sexual and physical abuse and harassment. On the Inside at Craft Contemporary (running June 2 through September 8), co-curated by Tatiana von Furstenberg, uses art made by current LGBTQ inmates to challenge stereotypes about prison, and it opens just in time for Pride month.
“This is a group show with artists who happen to be currently incarcerated,” says von Furstenberg. “There’s deep poetry, humanity and craft in their art.”
“The prison industrial complex in the U.S. is a very layered and multifaceted apparatus,” adds Craft Contemporary curator Holly Jerger. “This show is meant to give voice to people who have been victimized either in prison or in society.”
Von Furstenberg, a filmmaker, writer, and daughter of famed fashion designer Diane, suffers from a genetic muscular disorder called Brody myopathy, which affects her mobility. Despite her physical constraints, von Furstenberg made a personal pledge a few years ago to commit acts of kindness every day for 30 days. She came across the website for Black and Pink, a national organization with chapters in L.A. that aims to “abolish the criminal punishment system,” and provides aid and advocacy for its members, including a newsletter. Stirred by the inmates’ letters, poems, and art, von Furstenberg joined Black and Pink’s pen pal service and placed an ad in the newsletter calling for artist submissions; over the next four years she received nearly 4,000.
In 2016, von Furstenberg and Black and Pink co-organized On the Inside at N.Y.’s Abrons Art Center. After the Craft & Folk Art Museum changed its name to Craft Contemporary earlier this year and widened its scope, the museum worked with von Furstenberg to bring the exhibit to L.A.
The 120 mostly drawn portraits in the display, which also incorporates quotes taken from the prisoners’ letters written to von Furstenberg, were made using pen, pencil, and paper, as well as DIY tools, like asthma inhalers filled with Kool-Aid.
The themes in the pieces vary. There are images of fantasy figures and religious iconography; historical black heroes, including Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Barack Obama; same-sex couples embracing; the transgender symbol of the male and female symbols combined around circle; a “Pissed Tranny.” One acrylic on canvas has Jesus holding a black sheep, while another sketch boldly declares, “God loves queers, not Fred Phelps.” Despite being locked up and marginalized, the artists don’t convey the bleakness of prison, but instead resilience, rebellion and the need to escape.
“They almost never depict themselves in prison uniforms or set themselves in the context of jail,” says von Furstenberg, who lives in L.A. “Prison is a circumstance that has little to do with how they identify themselves.”
The exhibit doesn’t provide personal information about the prisoners – only their first names; the organizers are less interested in their offenses and more about what they created.
“Inside of these prisons are valuable human beings,” adds Dominique Morgan, a former inmate and Black and Pink’s national director. “Poor choices don’t dictate their value. There are people walking around in our community every day who have committed heinous crimes and have never been arrested. Woody Allen married his stepdaughter. People who can get around the system are mostly cisgender, white privileged individuals.” (Morgan and von Furstenberg are both taking part in related events during the show’s run.)
The art isn’t for sale, though von Furstenberg donated money to the commissaries of the prisoners, who often don’t have support from their families.
Von Furstenberg wants to do more than give LGBTQ artists a chance to express themselves outside prison walls. She hopes to spark a discussion about prison reform and encourage people to reach out to gay, lesbian, and transgender people serving time, just as she has. Visitors can text the inmates through a transcription service and also join a pen pal program.
“Incarceration is an industry,” says von Furstenberg. “We’re making money off of it. I don’t want to further exploit or commodify or romanticize anything. I want to ignite the human condition in all of us. These artists take whatever means they have, turn it around and make beautiful pieces of art. That’s an empowered act of protest. It’s inspiring and soul lifting.”
“Take in the work, evaluate it, and maybe find connections to your own life experience,” adds Jerger. “Sometimes people do bad things in life, but that doesn’t mean they can’t change.”