Despite having gone to school in New Haven since I was six, even I usually fail to leave the Yale bubble. When I do, it tends to be rewarding, though, and my excursion to Artspace at 50 Orange St. to see Arresting Patterns was no exception.
The exhibit features work from Titus Kaphar ’06 M.F.A, 16 New Haven Public School students, and a carefully chosen group of other socially conscious artists. The works on display used a variety of media to convey a potent message about racial disparities in the American criminal justice system.
Kaphar, a New-Haven based artist, had mentored the students for 3 weeks through Artspace’s Summer Apprentice Program, which allows a group of students to apprentice for an established artist. Their work displayed an unusual level of awareness, and forced viewers to acknowledge some troubling realities.
Each artist’s works occupied a section of Artspace’s gallery, and the students got a section as well. One such area features letters from a campaign through Tamms Ten Year, a prison reform organization, that allowed inmates in solitary confinement to ask for a single photo to decorate each of their cells. The simplicity of their requests — one man asked for a picture of a woman fishing — illustrated how solitary confinement can force people to yearn for the ordinary.
Another section is a room showcasing videos of six black men each stating how many times they’ve been stopped by the police. While they wait to speak, the men shift their weight from one leg to the other, but it’s unclear whether the discomfort one perceives is theirs or one’s own. One man says that he’s been stopped over 100 times.
I can’t claim to approach this exhibit with an artistic background. Instead, my perspective is one of indignance and frustration about the state of our criminal justice system. I often write about criminal justice and civil rights, so I entered the exhibit thinking I knew what to expect. Still, some information caught me off guard and surprised me.
Throughout the exhibit there are “takeaway” cards with relevant statistics regarding race and prisons. Citing statistics from the U.S. Census & International Center for Prison Studies, one such card states that though the U.S. has less that 5% of the world’s population, it has almost 25% of the world’s total prison population. I had already known that the U.S.’s prison population was the world’s largest, but the numbers were a stark reminder.
Only upon my second trip to the exhibit did I notice the outlines of a prison cell in black tape on the floor of the student section. Outlined were the dimensions of the bunk, the toilet, the table and the shelf that adorn a cell. You’re invited to listen to a recorded monologue and write on the wall as you spend some time in the cell. Instructions on the wall ironically invite you to stay for years.
I comforted myself with the thought that one would have to do something truly terrible to end up in a prison cell. But then I remembered the article I wrote just this week about Bobby Johnson being released from prison after spending nine years there for a crime he didn’t commit. And then I remembered a report last year released by Connecticut Voices for Children stating that petty offenses like tardiness, swearing and disruptive behavior result in 11 percent of student arrests. So the thought that someone has to do something terrible to end up in jail — it comes with a lot of asterisks.
Over the summer, Kaphar brought the students from the Summer Apprentice Program on a field trip to a prison, perhaps so that similar thoughts might occur to them. He explains the thought process behind the trip in a video produced by Artspace and Travis Carbonella, which plays on repeat in the students’ section. Kaphar says that most people don’t even know what the inside of a prison looks like. He argues that, given how many people in the United States are sent to prison, everyone should visit one to see where we send our convicts. Kaphar’s apprentices succeeded in making at least one viewer consider what the experience of prison is actually like.
If you didn’t get a chance to visit Artspace over the last two months, you still have a chance to confront these tough questions. This weekend, Arresting Patterns is ending with a two-day conference featuring guest artists, policy makers, scholars, and activists who will address the questions raised by this exhibit. The conference and the exhibitions are free and open to the public. I’m not done thinking about the questions I faced at, “Arresting Patterns,” so I plan to attend.