‘Barring Freedom,’ An Exhibition That Puts the Criminal Justice System in Perspective

Barring Freedom BeLatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of barringfreedom.org

You don’t have to be an academic to know the depth of the roots of racism in the United States, even in systems that disguise themselves under the torn mantle of democracy.

While protesters on the streets claim that Black Lives Matter, the Criminal Justice System continues to operate in a segregated framework.

The discussion of racist dynamics in the social, economic, and legal spheres is now fruitful in artistic and cultural circles, the dynamic axes of real change.

For the Santa Cruz Institute of the Arts and Science, the medium has been a contemporary art exhibition and a participatory public art project under the title Barring Freedom, which features a narrative of works around the history and impact of systemic racism in America.

As its website explains, amid a pandemic and a socio-political crisis, 2020 has been a fertile year in transforming the United States. This country is “in the midst of a historical reckoning about racism, economic inequality, and the nation’s criminal justice system,” a process that has given new impetus to the question of philosopher, educator, and anti-prison activist Angela Davis: “Why do we take prison for granted?”

The exhibition project, along with a digital platform, the public art project, and the events organized around it, seeks to answer key questions regarding the American police and prison system’s injustices.

What strategies are artists using to explore how and what people see when it comes to policing and prisons in the United States? How do artists attempt to change these perceptions?

The exhibition catalog includes artists such as Hank Willis Thomas with a sculpture based on a photo of prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp, showing hands holding a barbed-wire fence.

Other pieces in the show include Sadie Barnette’s “FBI Drawings: No Violence,” where, with care and drawings of tiny roses, she has transformed pages in the FBI surveillance file of her father, the founder of the Black Panther Party chapter in Compton, California. For his “Tar Ball,” Levester Williams wadded up dirty sheets from a Virginia penitentiary and dipped them in tar. “Flies and things are stuck in it, so it’s this very visceral piece,” said curator Lauren Schell Dickens on a FaceTime tour of the exhibition. “It’s reminiscent of the iron balls historically used on chain gangs, so it links past manifestations of terror to our current systems.”

“We intend these resources as pathways through the artworks and artist interviews, available for anyone interested in thinking critically about prisons and policing. We believe that art—and the forms of poetic, nonlinear thinking that it encourages—can open up the issues in novel ways, offering a compelling route into challenging topics of discussion,” the Project explains.

“Each study guide contains a selection of artworks and short clips from the artist interviews that we thought exemplified the theme, as well as quotes from selected key readings and links to other relevant artworks from the exhibition. There are questions throughout to encourage reflection, and at the bottom of the guides are suggested further readings and resources.”

The Institute of the Arts and Sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York collaborated with the museum to put on an art exhibition and online event series about art, prison, and justice. The exhibit will continue at the museum through April 2021 and then travel to John Jay College.