Artists Team up With Critical Resistance to Make Prison Abolition Irresistible

Erica Deeman, from the 'Silhouettes' series. (Courtesy the artist)

While the idea of prison abolition hit mainstream consciousness only recently as part of the uprising for racial justice in response to the killing of George Floyd, the concept—and the movement for its realization—has been a rallying cry since at least the 1971 Attica Prison uprising, which brought to national attention the dehumanizing conditions experienced by those in the American prison industrial system.

For over two decades, Critical Resistance, a national organization founded to challenge the idea of “imprisonment and policing as a solution for social, political and economic problems,” has been issuing those rally cries. And now they’re organizing a series of events, alongside an exhibition and auction, with the aim of ushering in the “last days of the abolitionist movement,” according to exhibition curator Ashara Ekundayo.

If artworks and abolition seem an unlikely pairing, Ekundayo says you’re just not looking closely enough. “Culture workers have always been part of all movement-making on the planet,” she says. The list of participants in Imagine Freedom: Art Works for Abolition is lengthy and impressive; it includes international art figures like Theaster Gates alongside much-loved Bay Area artists like Sadie Barnette, Lava Thomas and Favianna Rodriguez. And the exhibition (and sale) of works, on view via Artsy Sept. 29–Oct. 13, is just one aspect of an event series meant to educate people about the abolitionist movement as much as it helps fund its future. (Full disclosure: KQED is hosting one of these events.)

There’s plenty of accompanying programming to choose from, so a few highlights:

Making Abolition Irresistible
Tuesday, Sept. 22, 4–5:30pm
Critical Resistance hosts a webinar on abolitionist organizing and art practice, featuring artists and activists Ashley Hunt, Fernando Marti (Justseeds), gloria galvez, kai lumumba barrow (Gallery of the Streets), Kate DeCiccio and Melanie Cervantes (Dignidad Rebelde). The conversation will focus on how artists can center images of freedom and guide others to practice the radical imagination needed to envision a world without prisons. Details here.

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Imagine Freedom: Art Works for Abolition
Wednesday, Sept. 23, 8–9pm
KQED’s own Pendarvis Harshaw interviews Deanna Van Buren (Designing Justice + Designing Spaces), artists Sam Vernon and Leslie “Dime” Lopez and curator Ashara Ekundayo about the relationship between art, design and prison abolition. Details here.

A Portal for Liberatory Practice: A/R, Afrofuturism and Abolition
Friday, Oct. 2, 12–1pm
Every video chat, Zoom meeting and virtual event is a portal of its own kind these days, but not all those portals lead to liberation—of thought, artistic practices and people. The Wakanda Dream Lab hosts an interactive panel that uses augmented reality to bring to life the words of Black Freedom Beyond Borders: Memories of Abolition Day, a collection of speculative writings looking back on the day we abolished police and prisons. Details here.

Artist Talks
Through Oct. 5
These sessions have already begun, and are thankfully archived on the Critical Resistance Facebook page, including conversations between filmmaker Melinda James and Elena Gross (of MoAD), artist Sadie Barnett with curator and arts writer Essence Harden, and Hank Willis Thomas and representatives of the Black Joy Parade. Details here.