Home Magazine Imprisoned artists, seen through the lens of their creativity!

While The Pencil Is a Key covers works from different continents, centuries and types of imprisonment, today's conversation about mass incarceration and border detention make it as timely as ever...

When prisoners have no power, rights, privacy or control, art and creativity can still be a source of salvation. That is the message behind the latest exhibition at the Drawing Centre in New York, "The Pencil is a Key". Organised by the center’s curatorial team and spread across two galleries, the potent and timely exhibition shows more than 140 works from different continents, training levels and types of incarceration.

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This includes Western penal systems as well as psychological institutions and more. Despite covering 200 years worth of prison art, the show is as timely as ever, given today’s conversations around mass incarceration and border detentions. The aesthetic diversity, range of stories told and moving themes exhibited make the exhibition feel much larger than it is and deserving of a slow and contemplative visit. 

The pencil is the tool that unites all narratives and is at the center of the exhibition. Drawing can unlock the brain’s limitations and empower prisoners with dignity and dreams of life beyond their imprisonment. The show first opens with a self-portrait by Hubert Robert in the Saint-Lazare prison. Before he was arrested in 1793, Hubert was prolific in producing beautiful landscapes with dream-like representation of ancient civilisation. In his self-portrait, Hubert depicts himself hunched over a desk, passing time with work. Light flows through a large window and gives the room a beautiful and signature glow. In 1794, Hupert sent a letter to the National Convention in which he offered two sketches of revolutionary scenes in exchange for his freedom. His self-portrait suggests then that he was hoping to flatter himself with his jailers, using art as a currency. 


Untitled drawing of a golf course by Valentino Dixon © Courtesy the artist and Andrew Edlin Gallery


Valentino Dixon served 27 years for a murder he did not commit. He took up drawing as a way of coping with imprisonment in the Attica Correctional Facility. After discovering his talent, the superintendent asked him to paint a picture of the 12th hole at the Augusta National Golf Club. Despite never having been to a golf course before, Dixon looked a photograph and found himself immersed in its landscape. “Something about the grass and sky was rejuvenating,” Dixon told Golf Digest magazine. “After 19 years in Attica, the look of a golf hole spoke to me. It seemed peaceful. I imagine playing it would be a lot like fishing.” The magazine led Georgetown University students to take up his case and his conviction was overturned in 2018. 

Mahmoud Mohamed Abd El Aziz (Yassin Mohamed) recreated the bleakness of an Egyptian jail, but chose to decorate it with greenery and vegetation. Imprisoned at the age of 18 in 2013 for attending an anti-government protest, he spent five years protesting, getting arrested and eventually released and starting the cycle again. In his paintings, he injects life into his bleak environments. A green vine sprouting purple flowers climb the wall of a black-and-white cell. Flowers decorate prisoners’ necks where their heads should be. Nature offers comfort, escape and hope of a better world one day.


'The Flowers that Bloomed in the Prisons of Egypt' (2017), by Mahmoud Mohamed Abd El Aziz (Yassin Mohamed)


Many prisoners see art as a form of documentation for their experience and a way to track what their jailers might hide. Halina Olomucki, who was trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto and eventually sent to Auschwitz, documented the pain around her. Both Olomucki and her pictures survived, and served as a testament to all that she and her fellow Jewish people suffered. Alexander Bogen, jailed in the Vilna Ghetto, went on to create a Goya-like sketch of a soldier oppressing his inmates that captures sadism in just a few strokes. 


Halina Olomucki's 'Back to Life' (c1939–1942)


Not everyone in the exhibition is a blameless victim falsely imprisoned, but the curators seem to be less interested in the criminality and more interested in the creation. The show maintains a focus on art’s ability to resist the worst circumstances, soul-crushing environments and afford someone their freedom, despite what they have done. The Drawing Center indeed created an expansive view on imprisonment and makes a great argument for creativity as a liberating force. With its equal focus on the narratives and the works, the show reminds us that it is crucial to remember that at the center of all these institutions lie real human beings. 


Stay Tuned on Kooness magazine for more exciting news from the art world.


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