Exhibition

Slavery: The Prison Industrial Complex

Art + Practice, Los Angeles, United States
22 Sep 2018 - 06 Jan 2019

Chandra McCormick, Men Going to Work in the Fields of Angola, 2004. Courtesy the artist.
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Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick have been photographing life and labor practices at the Louisiana State Penitentiary for more than three decades. After showing their work in First Art Musuem this spring, the exhibition comes to Art + Practice Gallery, Los Angeles from September 22, 2018 untill January 6, 2019.

The prison was once a plantation and is known as Angola, the country of origin for many of the slaves. (Incidentally, Nashvillian Adelicia Acklen inherited the property from her first husband in 1845 and owned it until 1880.)(1) At 18,000 acres, the complex is bigger than the island of Manhattan and operates as the largest maximum-security prison in the United States.(2) It is also called “The Farm” because it continues to grow cash crops—as much as four million pounds a year—using inmate labor. The 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, which prohibits involuntary servitude, does not apply to convicted inmates. In the minds of Calhoun and McCormick, slavery never really ended at Angola.

Angola currently houses more than six thousand male inmates; around 75 percent are African American.(3) When one looks at contemporary photographs of black bodies in the fields, one may wonder if they are descendants of those who worked on the plantation in the nineteenth century. As first-hand witnesses to exploitative labor practices, Calhoun and McCormick are committed to bringing attention to how incarceration, which has more than quadrupled in the United States since 1980, can fuel and abet capitalism. The problem is complicated further because the economic welfare of local communities largely depends on the penal system for civilian employment.

Calhoun and McCormick’s intimate understanding of prison culture has informed their activism not only on behalf of individuals directly involved with correctional facilities, but also at home. In their New Orleans community, the husband-and-wife team’s crime prevention extends to offering alternative, constructive options for at-risk youth. In their hands, cameras become tools of social justice and a powerful means of connection and communication. Their visual messages are echoed in the song “Angola Bound,” written by their friends Charles and Aaron Neville, which tells the story of how the wrong turns in life can lead a man into working harder than a mule in Angola.

Since 1965, Angola inmates have been allowed to participate in the prison rodeo—at their own risk, of course. Patrons pay admission and often buy arts and crafts made by inmates. The proceeds do not accrue fully to the prisoners, however. The spectacle recalls how gladiators entertained the public in the Colosseum in ancient Rome. Those fighters could be given freedom by a pleased emperor, but Angola inmates cannot be rewarded with pardons when they deliver remarkable performances at the rodeo. From time to time, an inmate leaves Angola, temporarily or permanently. Calhoun and McCormick have photographed inmates released to attend a family funeral. Prisoners are pictured shackled in chains, sitting or standing with their loved ones for bittersweet reunions. On two occasions, the artists have been on hand when exonerated inmates were released. Calhoun and McCormick recorded the departures, adding video documentation to their oeuvre. Resentment and the heartbreak of having lost time and freedom engender a complex set of emotions for the innocent.

The photographs of Calhoun and McCormick are not marked by rancor or righteous indignation. Rather, the artists’ expressions of social protest are imbued with humility and encourage you to consider the full humanity of their subjects. In the African American tradition of call and response, they issue the call, inviting us to engage in conversations about justice, bias, labor practices, and the social costs of mass incarceration.

NOTES

  1. Acklen sold the property to a former Confederate major who leased inmates from the state to work the plantation. The facility officially became a state prison in 1901.
  2. Jeffrey Goldberg, “The End of the Line: Rehabilitation and Reform in Angola Prison,” Atlantic, September 9, 2015, theatlantic.com.
  3. Erik Eckholm, “Bible College Helps Some at Louisiana Prison Find Peace,” New York Times, October 5, 2013, nytimes.com.

Slavery: The Prison Industrial Complex is curated by Susan H. Edwards, Executive Director and CEO of The Frist Center for the Visual Arts and Katie Delmez, Curator at The Frist Center for the Visual Arts.

This exhibition is presented by The Frist Art Museum and Art + Practice. Supported in part by the Friends of Contemporary Art and Metro Arts, Tennessee Arts Commission and Art Works.

 

About the artists:

Keith Calhoun (b. 1955, New Orleans, LA) and Chandra McCormick (b. 1957, New Orleans, LA) were born and raised in the lower ninth ward of New Orleans, Louisiana. As a husband and wife team, they have been documenting Louisiana and its people for more than 30 years. In New Orleans, they have documented the music culture, which consists of brass bands, jazz funerals, social and pleasure clubs, benevolent societies, and the Black Mardi Gras Indians. In addition to documenting New Orleans’ social and cultural history, Calhoun and McCormick have also covered religious and spiritual ceremonies throughout their community, as well as river baptisms in rural Louisiana. They have created several photographic series, including: Louisiana laborers; the dock worker, longshoreman, and freight handlers on the docks of New Orleans; sugarcane field scrappers in the river parishes along the Mississippi river; cotton gins, and sweet potato workers in East Carrol parish of Lake Providence Louisiana.

The body of work which they call Slavery: The Prison Industrial Complex, began in the early 1980s and continues today. The series serves as both a historical record and testimony of life at the Angola penitentiary, also called “The Farm.” It is an 18,000-acre prison farm where inmates are traded like chattel to wardens of neighboring penitentiaries. Although the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution abolished slavery in 1865, its prohibition of forced labor does not apply to convicted inmates. Slavery: The Prison Industrial Complex sheds light on the “criminal justice” system. Calhoun and McCormick’s work restores visibility and humanity to a population often forgotten by the public at large.

Calhoun and McCormick’s images have been shown widely at institutions including the Smithsonian Institute, African American Anacostia Museum, Brooklyn Museum, Houston Fine Arts Museum, the Louisiana State Museum, the New Orleans Museum of Art, L9 Center for The Arts, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art as part of Prospect.3: Notes for Now (2014-2015) and the 56th Venice Biennale. Calhoun and McCormick’s work is in the permanent collections of the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Louisiana State Museum, and the Louisiana State Museum.

Art + Practice
3401 W. 43rd Place
Los Angeles, CA 90008

 

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