As art-goers gathered at the Krannert Art Museum, they were greeted by images of prison bars, small rooms and depictions of many individuals crammed into each other in detention centers in the ECI. They have seen the inhumane practices of prison systems.
The room was quiet as the audience reflected on the gallery. They observed how the colors of prison life – the violence and the politics – were felt by those who actually experienced them.
On Friday, a new art exhibit, “Reckless Law, Shameless Order: An Intimate Experience of Incarceration” premiered in the Hood Classroom at the Krannert Art Museum. Parallel to the installation, there was a reception and a conversation with the featured artists.
The gallery features collaborative works by officially incarcerated artists. Through art, they shared their experiences in a way that made viewers think about how punishment is used to hold power over lives.
Nasrin Navab, one of the eight contributing artists, selected the art to feature in the gallery. Other artists include Vincent Robinson, Kenneth Norton, Monica Cosby, Lauren Stumblingbear, Imran Mohammad, Pablo Mendoza and Sarah Ross.
During the conversation, the artists discussed the many issues facing the prison system today. They also reflected on the importance of art while incarcerated – craftsmanship instilled a sense of hope and purpose in a way that helped them reclaim the humanity that imprisonment had taken away from them.
Vincent Robinson, who had served 31 years in the Illinois Department of Corrections, elaborated. He said that in prison, means of self-expression were not allowed. For example, magazines containing perfume and makeup samples were considered contraband.
Robinson’s watercolors featured objects such as pencil sharpeners, needles, and an ink pen. All of these items, however, were considered contraband and could be taken away.
“The needle was essential,” he said. “You know, for the clothes; you can keep your clothes longer and they sold sewing kits at stewardship. But over time, they took all that away.
He said jailers cited such items could be used to harm others or as a means of escape.
He also explained that eventually the prisons also took books.
“They started taking pounds,” he said. “They even tried to take our Bibles. Over the years you have a real old bible and you study and read the scriptures. They would take it away.
Robinson also included books in his watercolors. Some books included the Quran and the World Encyclopedia.
Artists have said that their difficulties in acquiring contraband items such as the objects in Robinson’s paintings made them more difficult to express, either through art or through personal choice to smell good.
The artists also talked about how, once out, it was difficult to express their experiences through art. It was painful to think of when they were in prison; it looked like they were back. However, they said they had to get their point across.
Ian Wang, president and curator of the Spurlock Museum, said that while art is a learning opportunity, it is also a call to action. He also said that he usually likes to see new exhibits, but this one was special.
“I always like to see art exhibits,” Wang said. “So it’s a new exhibition, I want to see what it’s all about. The impression (from the exhibition) is that it is an interesting spectacle.
Although she did not experience incarceration, Nahid Navab, Nasrin’s sister, said the pieces had a strong emotional impact. She explained that she enjoyed the artwork as an outsider, but was aware of the hard work and history that made the exhibit possible.
“I think it’s (an exhibition like today’s) important because a group of artists with the same background, they come together and they’re very good at presenting their voices and collaborating with each other. others,” she said. “For me, it’s very fantastic.