Incarcerated artists gather in enthralling digital exhibition by Museum of the African Diaspora

Meet Us Quickly artwork
Lamavis Comundoiwillia/Courtesy
"Sister" by Lamavis Comundoiwilla

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At its bones, the world of visual art is founded on the notion that there is no right or wrong. Any blank space is an opportunity for minds to run wild. This October, the Museum of the African Diaspora achieved this very essence and unveiled its first virtual exhibition, “Meet Us Quickly: Painting for Justice from Prison,” featuring 21 pieces cultivated by 12 artists incarcerated in San Quentin State Prison.

Rahsaan “New York” Thomas, an imprisoned journalist for The Marshall Project and San Quentin News, spearheaded this artistic effort for prisoners to house their projects in an online microcommunity. With a fusion of manifold messages, these creators spill an intimate portrait of themselves and their innermost reflections through visual art for viewers to deeply relish upon.

In tribute-like fashion, artists create to honor figures they deeply admire. Bruce Fowler, who painted a portrait of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg titled “Ruth,” achieves this very sentiment. Ginsburg’s triumphant work in the Supreme Court made her death significantly more personal for those who looked to her for light and guidance, and Fowler was no exception. Using acrylics and impeccable attention to detail, Fowler captured Ginsburg’s iconic pose in his illustration, with her hands folded peacefully and glasses rested on the bridge of her nose. While he is a self-proclaimed “most unlikely admirer,” Fowler respectfully pays homage to Ginsburg for her influence in the United States and around the world.

Inventive minds take charge of the exhibition. Tafka Clark Rockefeller’s “Make Skeletons Dance” is her deviation from classical constructivist boundaries to a new form she coined as Neoconstructivism. The art is simple yet complex, nearly hypnotic. Using nautical flags as her principal, Rockefeller utilizes geometric shapes and primary colors to break the status quo of constructivist styles.

Ben Chandler experiments with how painting can be a transport to finding a better version of himself for his family. Chandler channels his imaginative palette by searching for serenity and working to redress his wrongs in “Scenery.” His brushwork interlaces a lovely, far away landscape, but is blocked by brown weeds, symbolic of his current imprisonment that must be completed before he can once again frolic in nature.

But art can extend beyond soul-searching and into criticism. David Gabriel’s “Which Lives Matter” and Orlando Smith’s “Protest Poster #19” follow elements of the social justice movement revival across the world as the subject of their works. Gabriel’s black-and-white ink piece speaks volumes about who society tends to deem valuable. He asserts accountability in his art, daring viewers to reflect on the very question the image’s title poses. In a similar fashion, Smith focuses on injustices in the criminal system by sketching numerous protest posters and people from all walks of life joined in this effort against unfair government processes. The carefully crafted facial expressions are a testament to the passion that lies intrinsically within these activists.

What is most striking about this exhibit is its celebration of African culture. The stippling masterpiece “Remembrance” by Stan Bey integrates diverse aspects of the panoramic tradition, from Egyptian mummy tombs to Akan sculptures. Gerald Morgan honors prominent Black inspirations — specifically Aaron Douglas, who trailblazed the artistic road for future generations — in “Pyramids.” In “My Sister’s Keeper,” “Mystery Found Its Harmony” and “Sister,” Lamavis Comundoiwilla evokes poetic, visual harmony. These pieces are a multidimensional expression of sisterhood and family, tranquility and protection. Polished at all corners, Comundoiwilla succeeds in composing a culturally rich story in every stroke.

“Meet Us Quickly” shines a new angle of visual creativity with an embracing welcome. Ranging from all different motives, inspirations and visions, these incarcerated artists have the chance to showcase their talents and abilities. The works are each individual’s innermost thoughts, whether it be in the form of something as trivial as a five-minute sketch or as groundbreaking as a political manifesto. Whatever it may embody, “Meet Us Quickly” uplifts each creator’s artistic voice for all to appreciate in a digital space.

Contact Ashley Tsai at [email protected].