Written by Emily Mayer for Groundswell
March 6, 2015
Walking into the Leeway Foundation’s new exhibit RELEASE, it’s hard not to notice that you are surrounded by faces. From the large paintings of artist Mary DeWitt to the campaign ephemera curated by Mariame Kaba and Rachel Caidor, the show’s project is clear: to bring women and trans* peoples’ narratives of incarceration and state-sponsored violence out of the shadows.
Coordinated by the Leeway Foundation, which aims to “support women and transgender artists and cultural producers working in communities at the intersection of art, culture, and social change,” in collaboration with the Bread & Roses Community Fund, RELEASE is both “an art project and a history project,” according to Caidor. “In this moment, we are seeing more and more women being subjected to the criminal legal system, and mass incarceration is really ramping up the ways that especially women of color are imprisoned.” Coming out of organizing for Marissa Alexander, a Florida woman who was convicted for aggravated assault after her husband attacked and threatened her life, Caidor said she and Kaba realized that “[Alexander’s] not the first person who had this experience of having to defend herself against an abuser and then ended up being victimized by the criminal legal system that’s supposed to protect her.”
Kaba and Caidor’s portion of the exhibit uses newspaper clippings, campaign ephemera, and photographs to tell the stories of women who have been incarcerated as a result of self-defense throughout American history, beginning with a woman slave who killed her owner and ending with Alexander. Carefully curated, the room serves as an echo chamber of historical resonance, as it marks how women of color have not only been victimized by the courtroom but also fought back against the violence of their daily lives. “It’s time for people to hear women who are incarcerated, hear the voices of trans people who are incarcerated, not only to highlight that they are existing but that they are resisting too,” remarked Caidor.
Mary DeWitt’s portraits demonstrate resistance on a more intimate scale by depicting women serving Life without Parole (LWOP) in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania is one of six states in which LWOP remains legal. DeWitt has spent the past twenty five years painting locally incarcerated women, recording their stories and scrawling text from interviews on the canvas so that their voices are included in the work. Calling her subjects “a microcosm of the whole system,” DeWitt said her Leeway grants have allowed her to provide a mirror for women dehumanized and homogenized by prison IDs and uniforms. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve played women’s recordings back and they’ve said, ‘I really like who I am.’”
Taken together, the work of DeWitt, Kaba, and Caidor speaks to the inextricable ties between art and movement-building. The exhibit is in fact part of a program series that will also host a Town Hall on Gender and Mass Incarceration on March 25th. “Movement building relies on art, whether it wants to admit it or not,” remarked Caidor. “We can’t separate activism and mobilization from art and aesthetics from healing and caring from all work of social justice.” In a city and state where mass incarceration and disinvestment from education loom large, RELEASE provides a much-needed window into the stories that are often erased, and the tools many are already using to liberate them.
*Leeway uses the term “trans” in its most inclusive sense, as an umbrella term encompassing transsexual, transgender, genderqueer, Two-Spirit people, and more generally, anyone whose gender identity or gender expression is nonconforming and/or different from their gender assigned at birth.
For more about RELEASE, visit http://www.leeway.org/release.
Exhibit hours are by appointment only, Monday - Friday, 10:00am - 5:00pm. Visitors are asked to call 215.545.4078 to schedule a viewing. In addition, organizations are invited to reserve space at the Leeway Foundation to view the work in conjunction with related events and/or discussions.