When you walk into one of the galleries at the Hilliard University Art Museum, to your left is a huge wall-sized photo of prisoners behind razor wire-topped fence.
And when you turn around, a replica of the fence is right there, complete with barbed wire.
“Slavery, the Prison Industrial Complex: Photographs by Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick” is a collection of photos spanning 30 years, beginning in 1989, at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, and it will be at Hilliard, the only Louisiana museum to host it, through May 18.
“This initial space is kind of an educational space," Hilliard curator Ben Hickey said . "It’s supposed to set a tone, intellectually and emotionally, so when you walk in, you feel kind of closed in and trapped a little bit."
Pointing to the space between the movable walls, Hickey said, “Between this fence and these walls and this gap in the wall, I think, is a nice way of introducing the show metaphorically because the general public doesn’t understand the criminal justice system.”
Hickey said there is a disconnect of understanding among both the incarcerated and those living on the outside.
“We’re trying to create inroads between there and so you can get an incomplete vision of what the show is between these walls.”
The exhibition, organized by Frist Art Museum in Nashville, Tennessee, also presents prison statistics and a reader, “Visions of Angola — the Southern Penal System” featuring the works of Ernest J. Gaines. Visitors can fill out a tag that reads: “Finish the sentence. My freedom will ____.”
Alex Johnson will host a series of Spoken Word workshops, which will be followed by performances.
Hickey said while the exhibition “could make people reasonably uncomfortable, they need to realize that it’s part of a larger exhibition program."
"And I welcome their criticism and their being uncomfortable, but I challenge them to come back to our next season and then the season after that and understand how all the exhibitions I’m putting on fit together like a puzzle,” he said.
And then there’s the question: What about the victims?
Said Hickey: “For my interpretative standpoint of this exhibition, on a personal level, I think that if they’re sentenced, that is a different discussion. I’m not necessarily advocating for anyone to be released for a particular crime.
“I am very concerned we’re that turning people into criminals incapable of entering society after their sentence has been served and being reintegrated into it in a productive way. We live in a country with a Christian world perspective and if they are there to be punished and reformed, then I’m very much interested that that happens.
“I feel like those two things come hand-in-hand. I feel that sentencing might be a little out of whack for certain things. But I don’t think anyone’s necessarily advocating to just release people just because. I think that is a fallacy that is used disingenuously when arguing this type of thing."
The exhibition also comes at a time of kneeling during the national anthem and videos of police conduct arresting African Americans have stirred controversy.
“When you read museum mission statements, it’s says ‘Art of our time,’” said Hickey. “And this is something that’s happening in our time that’s not well understood. People may have strong opinions — just like I have strong opinions — and I have found, even with more and more research about this topic, I still don’t know that much about it.
“And I’m uncomfortable with how little I know about this subject matter. I think this is an important issue as a result of that. Strong opinions don’t equate with knowledge or wisdom. And I’m willing to admit as I learn more, the more I know, the less sure I am of things and I want to know even more. And it’s that probing and asking for questions really trying to understand things.”
Hickey said if we were having a conversation at the Gisela Colon: Pods exhibit across the atrium, “I’d be asking existential questions. But in here, we’re having another very human conversation. And that’s the role of art. That’s why we’re having the show.”
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