The exhibition The San Quentin Project: Nigel Poor and the Men of San Quentin State Prison, on view October 18, 2018, through March 10, 2018, at the Milwaukee Art Museum
, traces the evolution of the social practiceincluding mapping exercises, essays and interviewsof contemporary artist Nigel Poor (American, b. 1963). The project highlights the power of narrative to illuminate the ways the public might perceive prison populations, and suggests how engaging in storytelling can restore dignity.
The exhibition is the Museum debut of The San Quentin Project, a collaboration between Poor and men incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison, in Marin County, California. It presents nearly 30 mapping exercisesvisual documents on which the men in Poors class wrote their responses to and narratives about photographic images. It also features 100 photographs from an uncatalogued archive of thousands of 4 by 5inch negatives made inside the prison from the 1930s to the 1980s which Poor was introduced to in 2012.
The San Quentin Project offers a unique opportunity to consider the role of art in sparking conversations that question assumptions and open dialogue, said the curator of the exhibition, Lisa J. Sutcliffe, Herzfeld Curator of Photography and Media Arts, Milwaukee Art Museum. This exhibition seeks to not only invite audiences to discover how images of incarcerated populations have been codified, but also promote more critical skills in reading the cultural signs and power structures inherent within visual images.
The Milwaukee Art Museum exhibition also features a listening room with select episodes of Ear Hustle, a critically acclaimed podcast created inside San Quentin through a partnership of Nigel Poor, who is a co-creator, and Earlonne Woods, a co-producer and co-host. Ear Hustle gives its worldwide listeners a greater understanding about the day-to-day lives of those within the institution.
When I first started going into San Quentin it was photography that gave me the opportunity to connect with the men inside, said Nigel Poor. This work became the catalyst for the creation of the podcast Ear Hustle that allows men to share their own stories in a more complex and nuanced way.
In 2011 Nigel Poor began volunteering as a professor for the Prison University Project, a non-profit organization that provides higher education at San Quentin State Prison. The San Quentin Project evolved from Poors experience teaching visual literacy and the history of photography at the prison, where she asked her students to react to photographs made by artists, analyzing the images formally, as well as creatively exploring their meaning. Poor eventually incorporated pictures from the prisons historical archive into her classes, offering her incarcerated students a chance to respond to, refute and translate these uncatalogued photographs. Their distinctive interpretations offer audiences an opportunity to understand more about each individual and how he sees the greater world through the photograph.
In conjunction with the exhibition, the Haggerty Museum of Art at Marquette University and the Milwaukee Art Museum will host a three-day symposium November 1-3, 2018, to envision the role of the arts in criminal justice reform.
I hope people will realize that the mapping of these images comes from real people with real feelings. This project shows not only our observation skills at work, but our compassion and our driving need to be heard, said participant Mesro Coles-El. To know something I did is actually inside a museum is one of the greatest things in the world. Projects like this are important because so often people in prison are just simply forgotten. This is in part because society looks the other way when it comes to prisons and incarcerated people. The other part is that hope is in short supply. That lack of hope causes those incarcerated to sit around and wait to die. An opportunity like this comes around once in a lifetime. It gives me hope.
Nigel Poor is a San Franciscobased artist and professor of photography at Sacramento State University. She is also a co-creator of Ear Hustle. Poor holds a BA in photography and literature from Bennington College and an MFA in photography from Massachusetts College of Art.
Ear Hustle is part of the Radiotopia podcast network from PRX. Two full seasons are available on iTunes, Google Play Music, Stitcher and many other podcast platforms.
The San Quentin Project: Nigel Poor and the Men of San Quentin State Prison is organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum.