"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Art on death row: ‘it’s good, evil, vanilla ... all things in what we humans call life’

'Another Day in Paradise' - Myuran Sukumaran's exhibition opens in Sydney
'Another Day in Paradise' - Myuran Sukumaran's exhibition opens in Sydney
For those fighting the death penalty, art isn’t just about self-expression – it’s also a weapon in the battle for hearts and minds

Close to 3,000 inmates are currently on death row while controversy rages following a series of recent botched lethal injection executions, DNA-based exonerations of death row inmates and growing concern over racial discrimination in the criminal justice system.

Through art, a coalition of artists, educators and activists hope to humanise the plight of prisoners and sway public opinion. Organisations include R .E.A.C.H. which provides workshops to Tennessee death row inmates, Minutes Before Six (MB6), a blog by death row inmates dedicated to using arts and literature as a form of rehabilitation, and Art For Justice.

In some cases, the human body itself has become a political tool in this debate. In a macabre twist, Texas death row inmate Travis Runnels has given his consent for his body post-execution to be donated to Danish activist Martin Martensen-Larsen to be painted gold and preserved as part of an installation.

In 2012, the ashes of another executed convicted murderer from Texas, Karl Eugene Chamberlain, were exhibited as part of an installation by Martensen-Larsen in a Danish church.

Windows on Death Row, a travelling exhibition of over 60 works from death row inmates and some of America’s most famous political cartoonists, is currently on show at Ohio State University, while London-based artist Nicola White, founder of ArtReach: Reaching out with Art from Death Row – a project featuring a website of art by San Quentin inmates for sale, with proceeds used for victims of violent crimes, and to buy art supplies – plans four new shows of prisoners’ work this year in London. Her Twitter feed @DeathRowArtists provides a lively commentary on the art of San Quentin prisoners.

And in Sydney, a show of over 100 paintings by executed Bali Nine member Myuran Sukumaran, Another Day in Paradise, has just opened at Campbelltown Arts Centre, organised by artist and co-curator Ben Quilty, who was Sukumaran’s mentor and teacher until Sukumaran was executed in 2015.

Why have these artists and educators become involved? For Williams, formerly a death penalty supporter, it is to provide a voice for the voiceless. He adds: “If we’re going to kill these men, then we should be willing to listen to what they have to say.”

For White, who has worked with more than 25 San Quentin inmates since 2015, art and self-expression is a basic human right that provides dignity to the condemned. These men are human – often showing “extraordinary talent” – not monsters, she says. Art can act as a powerful political weapon by putting a face and story to these lives.

White quoted Sister Helen Prejean, a Louisiana-based campaigner for death row prisoners and the families of murder victims, and an advocate for the abolition of the death penalty. “When she met a death row prisoner she had been writing to for the first time, [she] said, ‘When I saw his face, it was so human, it blew me away. I got a realisation then, no matter what he had done … he is worth more than the worst thing he ever did’.”

For many, art has provided a form of personal rehabilitation. Quilty points to Sukumaran, and his journey from drug-runner to sensitive and self-knowing artist. White cites former Crips gang member Steve Champion, who has been on death row since 1982, age 18; he is now a self-educated author.

Click here to read the full article (+ artwork, links)

Source: The Guardian, Sharon Verghis, January 12, 2017

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