On the last Friday of March this year, Shwick Market partnered with artist Isaac Scott to host The Confined Arts: 2nd Edition, an exhibition showcasing the work of artists who are currently or were formerly incarcerated as well as those working in or around the prison system. In case you haven’t been, Shwick Market is a place where people can sell the things they make. In keeping true with its DIY mission, the building seems to be an old auto shop or warehouse, a good fit for art shows by people who don’t need or want uniform austerity to complement their work. Further to its mission, Scott reached out to Christopher and Jinyen Carew, husband and wife founders of Shwick Market, to propose an exhibition devoted to those having to fight for themselves to pick up the pieces of their lives that our prison system has scattered, in many ways irretrievably.
Upon entering, one immediately notices the industrial-space staples: mannequin parts, dead bikes, skateboards, etc. The sound of someone speaking to an audience over a PA system comes next. In the back of the room, hidden behind a wall, Fury Young was in the center of a large crowd, enthusiastically explaining an album he is producing called Die Jim Crow. To the left, a table full of merch is spotted with a wall of vinyl records behind it. The album, said Young, is a response to a book by Michelle Alexander called The New Jim Crow about “mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness.” The shirts for sale were screen-printed with an image of a pair of hands reaching through prison bars hovering over a crowd of protesters. A small sign explained that currently or formerly incarcerated black poets and musicians wrote all the material for the album. Young, who worked closely with Scott to organize the exhibition, also represented many of the artists who are currently incarcerated.
Many of the drawings and paintings on display present interesting compositions, color choices, and imagery. However, all are heavily symbolic and approach their topics too broadly to be incisive. Some drawings emphasize African heritage in a proud light, and others show African Americans praying behind bars, with more than one bleeding cross. The feelings behind these images are potent and real, the issues underlying them tragic and urgent, but the transmutation of feelings into something visibly communicative is the delicate task of art. Yet, in this case, the issue may be so obvious that no amount of artistic articulation could convey its depths, any more than a black man praying in his cell already does.
Among the attendees were people of all ages, including the very old and more children than one normally finds at an exhibition. At once, this simple fact makes clear that for many this event was very personal. Given the stakes, this kind of show should be very personal, and as an exercise in healing, the show was a huge success, with everyone taking something positive away from what initially was negative in the extreme. However, for those of us who have never been incarcerated, a more profound message was understood only intellectually, as the self-explanatory nature of the forms employed refused outsider access to the complexity of their content. Perhaps, if the artists tackling this coiled nightmare could introduce more specificity into their works, they could help us expand our discourse.
Shwick Market is located at 6 Charles Place, Brooklyn, NY (near the Central Avenue M stop) and is open Tuesdays–Sundays, 11AM-7PM