When Tatiana von Furstenberg decided to put out a call for art submissions in Black and Pink, an LGBT newsletter distributed in prisons across the country, she didn't know 4000 incarcerated artists would come through in a flood of powerful and emotional art.
Her new show, On the Inside, narrates the art received: a story that humanizes incarcerated queer people, transcending their identity from 'prisoners' to 'artists.' The show flows through themes of celebrity and suffering to those of spirituality and love – a common thread that connects the various works is an emphasis on the self-identity of the artists as creators and humans, rather than incarcerated people.
Between the artworks (that were drawn using pencils, bic pens, and DIY tools – in one case – an inhaler filled with Kool-Aid on copy paper, oftentimes on the back of prison forms) on the walls are quotes from letters from the artists that Tatiana received – raw and poetic self-revelations and reflections, as well as numbers you can text that would put you in contact with the artist.
In a truly barrier-breaking usage of technology, the gallery allows viewers to easily send mail to the incarcerated artists and creates conversation, despite high prison walls.
We talked art world and politics with the Curator Tatiana von Furstenberg, about building a human exhibit, the menacing problem of rising incarceration in America, and themes of identity displayed by the artists at the show.
So, can you tell me how you arranged these pieces?
So I just pulled out the protagonists to kind of like define the groups – so this is the love group, and the identity and gender fluidity, and like gender polarity pieces. Then there [are] the self-portraits –like the badass self-portraits, and the more reflective ones.
Most of these are like ideas of self, and that's how you're arranging them?
Yeah, exactly – and I didn't decide to kind of arrange it. It decided to arrange itself; basically, like 18 months into it, I put everything on the floor, and I was like – oh look, theres a bunch of love ones, a bunch of gender polarity ones, a bunch of like, I'm so fucking hot self-portraits, and then there was like reflective portraits, there's spirituality, there's warriors – and then, that's it – and celebrities, and that's basically everything that I received.
So, it made itself?
It made itself.
How I organized the show, it's like all about authenticity and identity, and self – there's nobody up here; I mean there's a section downstairs but that's pretty small. Like, nobody puts themselves in a cell in their self-portraits. Mainly they identify as – first and foremost as artists, human beings, queer people, and prison is just like a condition that they are in, it's not – it's got nothing to do with [their] identities.
What do you think accounts for the celebrity portraits then – how do you think that relates to the artists' self-identities?
Yeah, so I think 60% of my collection is celebrities – I get a lot of celebrities. Maybe not 60, but – a lot. But what I found is that the celebrities that are important and relevant on the inside [within prison walls] are different from the ones that are relevant on the outside, so I think it's because of relatability. I think that Rhianna is relatable as a badass, she's relatable as vulnerable; Michael Jackson was tortured by his identity and redefining his true self, and he was a survivor of childhood abuse; you know what I mean? And same with Robin Williams and Marilyn Monroe – they're vulnerable, but kind of like exploited, I think – I felt that way, at least. So I tried to show celebrities that I had the most of, and make a statement like that – for instance, we don't get Kim Kardashian – all the non-relatable people… We didn't get Beyoncé, but my collection ended before Lemonade.
Very Cool. So when did the collection, do you think, come to an end?
I ended it – I had to start saying, like - you know – the collection is closed. I just couldn't keep going –
Was that just, like, an organic moment for you, or..?
When it was over? I'd received 4000 submissions, and it's really hard to mail the ones that didn't make it back... Wou know what I mean? And it was like a lot – I was ready to… I couldn't keep it forever, I had to start moving to the next stage, which was like – you know, getting a spot for the show, and that was really hard – like, none of the art institutions that I asked were in any way interested…
Why do you think that was?
I think, in a way, just to be able to see this level of technique and mastery and, like, expression… it' not on the pedestal, it's like not one artist building a career Like, it's really just like human emotion, and I guess, that's not what art is about anymore? Art is maybe more conceptual, at the moment. This stuff is really direct – like, this is me – like everyone wants to make eye contact; it's like super direct.
No one that put this show together has done an exhibit before. Literally, my home improvement builder from LA drove in, cross country, and built [it]. And, like, my graphic artist –we were going to make wall paper to try and include all 4000 pieces, but it looked really messy, and I was like – why don't we pull the protagonist out, just one. So we built that, and just got them printed here in town… We changed all the lightbulbs to make them warm instead of like white –
Yeah, you don't want that, like, hyper-minimalist, like, look..
Yeah, exactly. Yeah, 'cause it's a human piece.
But, like, none of us had done an exhibit, ever – like, I've made a movie, and you know what I mean? Like, I'm a storyteller in that way, but not in this way.
No, it's really really well done, I think. And what about the whole technological aspect, and how you can contact the artist?
Yeah, you can! So there's signs everywhere, and what we did was we developed a system where you can call one number, and it's an easy number – it's like 999 or something like that – and there's a code under each one [of the artworks], and if you just text, like "hey Tony B., your art is so moving – it's amazing that you did this with a bic pen!" it would go into the computer system, which will then separate all of the different names out, print it, and send it in hard mail.
I really like this whole idea of the conversation. I think the show is really doing this where it's really breaking barriers in that way, where we – as like people outside – are able to communicate with those inside.
And give back! They don't get to be here, but why shouldn't they receive? I mean, they're in a show in New York - so many people want that… They're like in a really beautiful show in New York, and – the whole thing started as a pen pal. The whole thing, for me, started because I was looking for a pen pal, and I stumbled upon Black and Pink – and I know how important mail is to people who feel that they've been forgotten. They might have been marginalized even by their own families of origin – so just knowing how important mail is, I had to figure out something.
Yeah, so do you think that the conversation that is going to come out of this, because, like – obviously, there are so many people coming and experiencing this and they're going to want to contact the artists…
Yeah, if they want to give their mailing address, then they can develop a pen pal relationship. Like, if you want to hear back from the artists, please send your mailing address to them, and then they'll be able to write you back.
Like, we're all one – we're just divided by a wall, and I hope, in this show you can see that. We're all one – there's so much like talent and complexity and humanity and poetry and emotion behind bars, and – we have this stereotype, blanket statement we've developed – we've been pushed, encouraged to develop this [image] that these are dangerous people that we need off of our streets, when in fact that's not true. Like, one in 90 Americans are in prison, one in 900 in other countries – and we're not giving birth to more prisoners. There's obviously something fishy going on, and it's like money-making…Most of the people in this show are behind bars for poverty-incited crimes – like, lack of opportunity to get a job, so maybe, you know – sex worker… You know what I mean? The world that welcomes them is clubs, and things like that, so it' just like – it's totally unfair. Like, the crimes that are being committed on them is so much worse than whatever they did.
So, do you think the show is kind of political storytelling as well? Especially in – we're in such an odd political moment in our history, right now..
My goal is to come at politics through humanity, and I think that by seeing that, oh these are like, by remembering that we cannot continue to turn our backs on this giant problem. We're keeping human beings in cages, and we're making money off of that – we're working them for no pay. That's slavery. When you see the people – with their hopes and dreams – and in the way that they're portraying themselves, you're just like we have to do something.
And you're kind of setting them free with this exhibit – they're not in cages in their art. They're not even prisoners, just artists.
Yes, thank you. It's really important that people see it. I can't really talk about it in the vacuum – it's too powerful, it's too intense, and it's not really mine to talk about. It's like – I didn't do the art (I did the installation, I had the vision and I manifested, like, but..). There you go, there it is.
It challenges, definitely, the criminal justice system, but I do think that on some level, it challenges the art establishment. Lots of people that came in for meetings – like, when I was looking for places to show – they were like, "oh wow, weird – I was expecting Outsider Art," and that's already so condescending. Really? Why did you have any expectations at all? Why did you... and then, on the flip side – from what I understand – refined, beautiful portraits that are so direct and genuine and earnest and authentic, are not really – like – relevant in the art world. Or you know, not really what's going on currently... I guess, maybe we should rethink that – because, maybe, genuine emotion is really what I'm interested in seeing. Like, I might not actually be interested in seeing a gimmicky, ironic, or conceptual piece of art – it's really elitist, it's super super academic – [you need to have a college education] to understand the semiotics behind it! Why can't we maybe think about making room for this type of art? Like it's really raw – but it's good, it's not primitive or folkloric, it's like super refined – maybe unschooled – but, like, really powerful.
On the Inside is being displayed in the Abron Arts Center in Lower Manhattan, from November 5th to December 18th – be sure to go check it out!
In the meantime, peep some pictures from the opening below.