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The Drawing Center opens an exhibition of more than 140 drawings by imprisoned artists
Sérgio Sister, Impress your feelings with your fingerprint, 1970. Econoline ink, oil pastel and hydrographic pen on paper, 17 3/8 x 17 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Galeria Nara Roesler.


NEW YORK, NY.- The Pencil Is a Key: Drawings by Incarcerated Artists is an exhibition of more than 140 drawings by imprisoned artists from around the globe. Featuring works produced over a roughly two-hundred-year period, the exhibition presents powerful evidence of the persistence of human creativity in the most inhumane of circumstances. For each of the incarcerated artists represented in The Pencil Is a Key, the act of putting pencil to paper is a vehicle through which they proclaim their individuality and measure their humanity against systems of repression. Together, their drawings are containers of memories, records that bear witness, tools for survival, weapons in the fight for justice, and portals to a better future.

Organized chronologically, The Pencil Is a Key interprets the term “incarceration” broadly to mean any situation in which an individual is denied their freedom. This includes penal incarceration; imprisonment of combatants during wartime; systematic imprisonment by governments on the basis of political affiliation, gender, sexuality, race, or religion; as well as forced restriction of movement and involuntary imprisonment in psychiatric institutions. Throughout the exhibition, drawings by artists who were or currently are prisoners are presented alongside works by prisoners who became artists while incarcerated.

Examples include political prisoners such as Gustave Courbet, who was held in Saint Pélagie Prison for his role in the Paris Commune uprising of 1871; leaders from Southern Plains nations, who were incarcerated in the US military’s Fort Marion following the Red River War (1874–75); artists imprisoned during World War II as noncombatants like Hans Bellmer, who was interned in France, and a young Ruth Asawa, incarcerated first at the Santa Anita Racetrack, and later at the Rohwer Relocation Center, as part of the US government’s mass internment of Japanese Americans; as well as artists in Soviet Gulags, apartheid-era South Africa, in Central and South American countries under military dictatorships, and in the post-Arab Spring Middle East. The exhibition also presents drawings by members of contemporary American prison populations who found their talent through prison art programs, as well as collections of works by anonymous artist incarcerates working in drawing subgenres specific to US prisons in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, including drawings made on prison-issue handkerchiefs (known as paños chicanos), drawings on the exterior of mailing envelopes, and hand-drawn playing cards.

Although captivity does not create a uniform style of drawing, there is little doubt that sustained periods of isolation from society have an impact on artistic expression. Artists often draw what they see, and in prison the view is radically limited. As a result, more portraits are produced than landscapes, and landscapes are most often views out of windows or otherwise reliant on magazine or book illustrations. In some astonishing cases, like that of Guantánamo prisoner Abdualmalik Abud, landscapes are meticulously rendered from memory. Along with portraiture and landscapes, drawings embedded in epistolary texts are common, as are scenes that document daily life in incarceration—some quotidian, others horrific.

Throughout The Pencil Is a Key, examples abound of the ingenious ways that incarcerated artists draw by any means available to them. Laundry pencils, ballpoint pen refills, food, and bodily fluids are applied to scraps of cloth, letters, envelopes, bills, and discarded packaging. Foldable, flat, and unassuming, drawings are also easier to hide than are three-dimensional works, an advantage in circumstances where the act of artmaking itself has the potential to constitute insurgency. Beyond these practical concerns, are other, more existential reasons for the choice of such a primary medium as drawing. Incarcerated artists represented in The Pencil Is a Key use drawing as a means for investigation and reportage, for currency, for mapping, sketching, counting, and measuring, activities that can be helpful, even essential to surviving imprisonment or for struggling against it.

Laura Hoptman, Executive Director, remarked, “In this moment throughout our country and around the world, when all kinds of freedoms are being called into question, it seems to me that we could not have picked a more urgent topic than the ability of drawing to articulate our humanity and express our determination to be free, even in the most dire conditions. For the first exhibition created under my auspices as Executive Director, I wanted all of us at The Drawing Center to collaborate on a show that made a full-throated argument for the essential nature of drawing—or in broader terms, art—to our lives, and in a bigger sense, to the definition of ourselves as human beings.”

The Pencil Is a Key is organized by the curatorial team at The Drawing Center: Claire Gilman, Chief Curator; Rosario Güiraldes, Assistant Curator; Laura Hoptman, Executive Director; Isabella Kapur, Curatorial Assistant; and Duncan Tomlin, Curatorial Research Intern.

Publication
The Pencil Is a Key is accompanied by a 144-page softcover catalog that includes full-color illustrations of many works in the exhibition, and essays by Dr. Nicole R. Fleetwood, Director of the Institute for Research on Women and Associate Professor of American Studies at Rutgers University; Dr. Valérie Rousseau, Curator at the American Folk Art Museum in New York; and Courtenay Finn, Chief Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, where the exhibition will travel in 2020.






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