When Dr. Nicole R. Fleetwood’s cousin Allen was released from prison, he brought with him hundreds of family photos, collected over the course of his 21 years in incarceration.
“It was a way that family on the outside was able to connect with him and create a sense of belonging and a sense of participating in events he could not attend,” said Fleetwood, the inaugural James Weldon Johnson Professor of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University as well as a writer, curator and this year’s CLAS Reads author.
Sponsored by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS), CLAS Reads has selected thought-provoking books and essays for undergraduates every fall for eight years, often inviting the authors to campus for a day of lectures and workshops.
This year’s selection featured three essays in “Racism in America,” including Fleetwood’s "Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” She wrote an award-winning book of the same name and curated the MOMA PS1 “Marking Time” exhibit.
During her virtual lecture on Wednesday afternoon, Fleetwood, recently named a MacArthur “genius,” discussed how her cousin’s photo archive began her exploration of how the state has cataloged incarcerated people through mug shots and other documents, and how those inmates have “marked time” with artwork and archives of their own that represent their experiences in prison and their relationship to the outside world.
As sophomore honors student Maya Volaitis ’24 said in her introduction, Fleetwood has shown that prisoners are “more than their alleged crimes and certainly more than just an inmate identification number.”
“When I started working on ‘Marking Time,’ I had no larger vision for it more than knowing that I felt something was a bit off” in the way that she had compartmentalized her experiences growing up in her “hyper criminalized” Southwestern Ohio city. Through her research, Fleetwood discovered a rich body of work documenting the life and the injustices experienced by people in the U.S. prison system.
The legacy of incarceration
“My work is very much in conversation with a larger visual culture of imprisonment and the carceral state,” Fleetwood said.
She shared the work of artists who appear in her book and exhibit, those in prison and released, as well as images from historic and modern photographers who have documented carceral life. The art ranges from portraits of fellow inmates to pieces using “procured state goods.” For example, Jesse Krimes’ portraits on bars of soap, which he mailed in playing card boxes.
The artists express their relationship to the space, time and matter of the prison, often commenting on injustices suffered while in captivity, such as the use of solitary confinement. Fleetwood gave the example of Mary Enoch Elizabeth Baxter, whose film “Ain’t I a Woman” addresses the hours she spent shackled while giving birth and the connection to a legacy that dates back to the enslavement of Africans.
Although some current and former imprisoned people have gained a following for their art, Fleetwood’s work isn’t a happily ever after story.
“Often, we who write about art might have a triumphant narrative that art can do anything,” she said. “But it’s not a story of uplift.”
Artists such as Rodney Goodman died homeless on the streets of San Francisco, Billy Sell was found unresponsive during a hunger strike while in solitary confinement and Ojore Lutalo continues to process the trauma of years in isolation.
It is this that Fleetwood wants to communicate — unjust prison practices, the marginalized people who make up much of the prison population and the fate of those who return to society.
By interacting with Fleetwood’s work, she said, “I hope the urgency to end carcerality is a more palpable experience.”