If one searches Google for an answer to “What is Art?”, the first definition that appears is from the Oxford English Dictionary dating back to the 1300s. It states that art is “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power”. This definition is actually from the 1300s. Socrates questions: “Which is the art of painting designed to be—an imitation of things as they are, or as they appear—of appearance or of reality?” He answered, in part: “Then the imitator…is a long way off the truth…”. Art can inspire us, move us with beauty, confuse, or it can give voice to the voiceless in desire to bring about social change and justice.
Justice LA’s Jail Bed Drop project series is described as a “creative intervention” created by Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter, and Cecilia Sweet-Coll. Jailbeddrop has expanded the concept into a full gallery exhibition.
Bianna Mims is a movement artist, facilitator, and abolitionist who uses art as “a catalyst for self-exploration, civic engagement, healing, and dialogue”. She recently graduated from USC where she studied Dance and Non-Governmental Organizations and Social Change. Mims recently collaborated with artists Georgina Grkikian and Mihn-Han Vu to curate #jailbeddrop, a three-day experience in partnership with SoLA Contemporary Gallery June 4th- 6th that included workshops, talks, and performances.
Due to the CDC guidelines for Covid the performance and interactive installation was designed to be shared virtually along with a limited number of small in-person groups. I was able to utilize the virtual tour of the gallery and, although I was only able to see a short video of Mims’ very provocative performance, I was extremely moved by the work of everyone represented.
There was a diagram of how the gallery was divided up into rooms, and several example of paintings that hung on the wall of a few of the rooms.
The largest space in the gallery included DOME CLIMBER, a large Geodesic Dome shaped jungle gym, areas labeled Calls To Action, Questions to Reflect On, Timeline Infographics and links to the artwork that was exhibited along the gallery walls.
“The dome climber is built to resemble so many of our childhood parks, but once put into context of performance it represents the prison industrial complex (PIC) and its interconnectedness to every part of the U.S’s systems and economy..” – Jailbeddrop press release.
In the next virtual room gave the impression of a lobby or information center. There were links on either side that led to more information about SoLA x Jailbeddrop and Previous Jailbeddrop Experiences.
The following room include a link that led to a beautiful painting of an Owl’s head by Christian Branscombe, Founding member of Healing Through Art (HTA). Branscombe was given Life Without the Possibility of Parole but his sentence was commuted and granted by Governor Brown. Opposite that link was a benign looking one labeled Visit/Bedroom. The bedroom listed was a diagram of a 6’ X 8’ prison cell with a description that read “The room is sized to match the average dimension of our nation’s prison cells— grapples with the degradation of our relationship to safe spaces that occurs when incarcerated. Inside the room, there are significant items and pieces of art collected from system impacted people. The room serves as an altar space to honor and hold space for folks.”
The final room was titled SPACE of REST: DEFUND. Resist. REST. “A space meant for reflecting, processing, and simply resting post experience”. It included a grey comforter with matching pillows on the floor representing a bed next to a bare white wall with a planted plant nearby. Above were two hanging plants, a small red decorative canopy high over the bed, an incense burner at its foot, and cut wild flowers or weeds lying in a row on the floor next to the bed. The bedroom was stark yet oddly welcoming and appeared to be waiting patiently for an occupant.
The virtual tour also include a Soundscape by pastelShade with the opening phrase from songwriter Brittany Howard’s Tomorrow “I found myself free”. There were photos of collected items donated to Jailbeddrop that included cards, letters, books, handmade works, artworks, candles and incense.
Most striking were the photos of artwork in the section titled Cal State Prison Art Wall; paintings by artists Christian Branscombe, Victor Tapia, and Kenneth Webb. Granscombe’s painting is a strong representation of slavery in America. It shows a Black man with chains around his head – one eye peeking out – wearing a small white sign that reads, “Property of”. There is a whip around the man’s neck that he holds with one hand and in the background is the lynching of another Black person.
Tapia’s painting is of a Black child sitting on floor at the feet of policeman. We only see the officer’s legs and feet, but there is a thick chain hanging down with an open padlock. The child is wearing prison orange with OUT OF BOUND stenciled on the wall behind him. Feeling imprisoned at birth?
Webb has two paintings represented. One shows a prisoner desperately reaching out of the small door where a food tray is put through (the key to the trap door still in lock) and behind him is his ghost-like cell mate with his mouth sewn up staring out of door’s window.
The second painting of Webb’s shows six young Black boys walking in a row. Five are dressed in blue jeans and different shirts, but on is in all orange. Two of the boys are wearing masks, and two are connected by a chain. One of the boy’s torso is wrapped in barbed wire, one is carrying a knife dripping with blood and one holds a teddy bear. Symbols of their possible future perhaps?
The site included Questions To Reflect On and a space for visitors to write their comments. They included such poignant questions as: In situations where ourselves or our family members have experienced acts of violence–when we say “we want justice we deserve,” what does that mean? What does justice look like? How can systems and policies within education, housing, mental health services, and environmental policies be altered or created to facilitate some level of public safety, accountability and/or care? What makes someone deserving of imprisonment?
According to Mims, this exhibit will be available for a while and I hope that readers will take the opportunity to visit the gallery. To do so, click HERE. There is much to look at and experience. One hopes that these artists’ work will be available in-person in the near future.
Written by Jeff Slayton for LADC, June 8, 2020.