PRINT September 2020


TAMECA COLE began writing and making collages while imprisoned in Alabama as a way to create space for her survival. Locked in a Dark Calm, 2016, is a composite portrait; the face, enveloped in a gray cloud, is only partially revealed. She made it as a response to the mistreatment she suffered from prison guards. Commissioned for these pages, Cole’s Dark Chaos: The Aftermath, 2020, extends her compositional experimentation, juxtaposing an eye from a color photograph of the artist with one eye and the nose of George Floyd. It is both a self-portrait and a memorial to the man whose murder by Minneapolis police helped inspire the most recent wave of uprisings for Black life.

Cole and the other three artists featured in the pages that follow—James “Yaya” Hough, Mark Loughney, and Jared Owens—are creating important work that evinces how imprisoned artists use their material constraints, spatial captivity, and “penal time” (time as punishment) to deal with the isolation and brutality of incarceration. Cole, Hough, and Owens have been released from prison and continue to make art; Loughney is still imprisoned.

During his twenty-seven years serving time in Pennsylvania, JAMES HOUGH made thousands of portraits, watercolors, collaborative murals, and graphite sketches of aspects of prison life. He also served as a mentor and teacher to dozens of other incarcerated people. In two of his paintings made during his final year in prison, the naked body of a Black man appears to be fed into a machine operated by a white man in uniform, illustrating what abolition geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore describes as the extractive processes of the prison-industrial complex. Over the summer, Hough painted a series of watercolors that explores how anti-Black violence and murder is represented in media and public life. For this project, Hough renders as impressionistic paintings video stills of Ahmaud Arbery’s final moments as he is stalked and assaulted by the three white men who would then kill him. With deep care and rigor, Hough honors Arbery’s life by slowing down to pause each video frame of his attempts to flee his murderers. The series works against the normalization of anti-Black violence we have grown accustomed to in mainstream media.

MARK LOUGHNEY was a working artist before his arrest and sentencing to a state prison in Pennsylvania. While behind bars, he began “Pyrrhic Defeat: A Visual Study of Mass Incarceration,” 2014–, an ongoing portrait series that so far comprises more than six hundred sketches of people housed with him. In addition to stressing the performative dimension of portraiture and its relationship to time in penal settings, “Pyrrhic Defeat” calls to mind William H. Townsend’s 1839 pencil drawings of the abducted Africans who revolted on the Amistad schooner as they awaited trial.

To choreograph twenty-minute-long portrait sessions inside prison is a considerable feat; as Loughney explains, finding a space of stillness in which to depict his sitters is difficult. And so the drawings are improvised in instances of relative calm amid the chaos of his environment. His series speaks both to a contemporary moment in which massive numbers of people are held in captivity and to the systems and ideology of incarceration that shape culture and society in ways seen and unseen. One of the sketches featured in this portfolio was made during the Covid-19 pandemic. Like hundreds of thousands of imprisoned people in facilities throughout the country, Loughney is on lockdown, confined to his cell twenty-three hours a day. This policy, ostensibly intended to curtail the spread of the virus, effectively implements mass solitary confinement.

JARED OWENS took many aesthetic and physical risks to produce works while in Fairton, a federal prison located in New Jersey. He gravitated toward abstract painting, though he soon grew frustrated by the limited canvas sizes in the small, cramped space where he worked. Owens, along with the collective he cofounded, sought out ways to expand the scale of his art and acquire new materials, including contraband items, prison bedsheets, coffee, soil, hair gel, and prison soap. He struggled against the color palette of the imprisoned, which is restricted by what types of metal and what chemical compounds are available.

Orange is highly symbolic in Owens’s work; in Fairton, the color marks the space forbidden to imprisoned people. It is a color of violence that reinforced his status as unfree and, he says, it remains a stress trigger. This color sets the mood for many of his works, such as Ellapsium: master & Helm, 2016, and Oculus, 2014. For Ellapsium, which he made while on parole in Charleston, South Carolina, Owens overlaid a blueprint of Fairton prison onto the infamous 1788 diagram of the Brookes slave ship. Floating in a foreboding ocean of orange and yellow, this haunted architecture recalls J. M. W. Turner’s 1840 Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On). In his newest works, one of which is shown here for the first time, Owens continues to explore—through paintings that incorporate debris from the prison yard—what theorist Saidiya Hartman calls the “afterlife of slavery.”