Light turquoise walls covered with portraits and poetry transformed the Seton Art Gallery into a room designed to evoke the atmosphere of a jail cell.
“Whereabouts Unknown,” created by artist Felandus Thames ART ’10, is the gallery’s second exhibition on race and social justice in America. It focuses on high incarceration rates among American Black men using art made from everyday materials such as jars, hair berets and photographs. The exhibit will host its opening reception Thursday from 5 p.m. until 8 p.m. After its opening, “Whereabouts Unknown” will be on display every day until March 1. Thames said he wants to create questions and conversations through his art and hopes that people will bring their own narratives to the exhibit.
“We are at a point in our nation where we are facing the fact that one in three Black men go to jail in their lifetime,” Seton Gallery Director Laura Marsh ART ’09 said. “As we look at our nation starting with slavery, moving into civil rights and now police brutality, we are asking how we can promote dialogues that bring people of different races and different social and economic backgrounds together.”
According to a 2003 report from the U.S. Department of Justice, one in three Black males in America are expected to go to prison during their lifetime, while one in 17 white males are expected to be incarcerated.
Marsh has been planning the exhibit with Thames over the past year. One wall of the exhibit is covered with small shelves holding jars that contain photos of anonymous Black men of various ages. The photos are dipped in hair relaxer, a product that straightens hair. The chemicals from the relaxer will eventually cause the images to fade away, Marsh said. She added that she views the relaxer as symbolic of the way a prisoner’s former life and relationships start to fade while they are incarcerated.
“The memory of this person will slowly start to wither away, your vivid memories fade,” Marsh said. “The details of [the prisoners’] lives become abstract to them, their former lives dissolved.”
The exhibition also includes excerpts from poems by Black writers Amiri Baraka and Etheridge Knight. The poems are displayed with each letter created with the bristles on hairbrushes. One wall features a portrait of a smiling Black girl made with hair berets.
Thames said that hair is significant to his work because it serves as a symbol for resistance against a culture that obscures Black identity.
“Hair is one of the signifiers for Black people because it’s a way of having a voice and a self-expression in a society that is designed to silence your voice and where you are underrepresented,” Thames said.
He said he wanted the word “Black” to describe his exhibit rather than “African-American,” as he believes “Black” is more encompassing and includes people from all over the world, rather than limiting the scope of his work to Americans.
For Thames, America’s incarceration rate for Black men is personal. He has seen cousins and nephews from both sides of his family serve time in prison, he said. While Thames studied at Yale, one of his male family members was arrested for a crime he did not commit. Although the family member was exonerated when a witness confessed to lying, he was kept in jail for violating his parole. After being transferred to a new prison he was found dead in his cell.
University of New Haven senior Alyssa Mackinnon said she is excited to see the exhibition as thinks that experiencing the artwork will help people understand racism even if they have not personally experienced it.
“Because it is such an emotional topic, people sometimes don’t really listen,” Mackinnon said. “It’s hard to understand when it isn’t your background.”
The New Haven Correctional Center is located on 245 Whalley Ave.