Two paintings by Bob Thompson, both entitled The Struggle, are catalysts for Terri Nwanma ’22’s examination of prison abolition. Nwanma interrogates this concept through poetry and essayistic writing.
A sip from the earth
refreshes my truth
my friend seduces my sway
as I dance along with my sin
My palms, my knees, my soles
are scorched steadily
I no longer belong to the
cool bed of secrecy
love announces my pain
questions why I do not
want to weevil into the
I’ve dedicated myself
to a different light
I must dance above my sin
In the spring and summer of 2021, the idea of prison abolition popped up in aesthetically pleasing infographics on social media platforms, often accompanied by links to free copies of books like Angela Davis’s Are Prisons Obsolete? Not many adopted any hashtag related directly to Davis’s and other radical activists’ definition of abolition, but a milder slogan, #Defund the Police, flooded socials, center aligned and bolded in the aforementioned infographics. At this point in the pandemic, I myself had joined a radical readers’ book club and we both examined and tried to bring to life the gleanings we had gotten from the week we spent reading Davis’s book on the cruel history of prisons.
One of the concepts we grappled with in our two-hour-long discussion was radical forgiveness. We wholeheartedly concluded that the prison system needs to be abolished due to its morally hypocritical underpinning globally and its racist foundations more specifically in the US and parts of the West. What we could not quite agree on was what our new model of rendering justice would look like. We couldn’t seem to find satisfaction in letting people who had caused harm in certain ways just essentially be free. However, we didn’t feel too excited to have the authority to decide someone’s fate, whether it be exile or restorative justice. We also didn’t know how flexible the determination of the impact of wrongdoing should be. One final thing we debated was how to approach communal efforts at defining what justice looks like, so that every member of a community has their voice heard, considered as valuable and utilized. And that was apart from examining the irony of our current views of future perpetuation of harm as a recourse for justice. I think a significant portion of how we disentangle ourselves from the carceral system is rooted in reviewing how we conceptualize morality as binary and our accompanying affective reactions. On an individual level, it is important to question how we see ourselves morally and how we assess the actions of both close and distant others.
Bob Thompson’s The Struggle wrestles with the impact of prevalent religious beliefs on morality and the condemnation of human behavior. In this painting, I see myself as the accuser and the accused, the enforcer of exile and the exiled. The real-life incidents in which I have played these roles extend beyond situations related to the strict commandments espoused in Christianity. The poem accompanying this essay is an attempt at decrying the vilification that I have felt as I have detached myself from religious expectations. However, as I reread it, I see that I am still feeding the idea that there is only good or bad, and so my escape means I still need neutralizing validation to assuage the hurt I get from retribution. This should not be the case. The reasons I had for stepping back from the rules of religion are rooted in a search for support and a longing for freedom. There are concrete measures that can be taken to grant me these resources that would not be morally imbued.
Like many in society who see prisons as “reserved for the most aggressive, dangerous, and malicious citizens whose actions are a product of some innate violent tendency,”  the view I held of a world beyond abolition, when discussing with my reading group, had been limited because I could not quite see how to get rid of a propensity to hurt that we collectively considered innate and negative. What moral binaries fail at when we deem those guilty of harm untouchables and unfixable is the downplaying of our roles in keeping a system going which harms us all in myriad weighted ways. My reading group had started to examine the idea that the root of the harm done by those who commit legal and moral wrongdoing is our “complex social reality,”  namely our collective inability to feed, house, clothe, and care for the mental health of each other. Sadly, before we could further explore a new approach to thinking about proactive restorative justice for these issues, said complex social reality cut short our time together due to the responsibilities we have to keep it going. To start to imagine how to redefine justice for our vast human interactions that are “fraught with moral ambiguity,”  I believe we as a collective need to start looking at ourselves like I did when observing Thompson’s paintings. We are all accused and accusers, and the sooner we leave behind ethical binaries, the sooner we can get to the solutions we desire.
The exhibition Bob Thompson: This House is Mine is on view at the Colby Museum through January 9th. The Colby Museum hosted a conversation on how art can empower social justice work, featuring educators and artists from Project Reset, a diversion program based in the New York City area, in which participants can attend an arts program as an alternative to appearing in court. Our conversation also included leaders of Maine Inside Out, an arts organization that works to build a movement for transformative justice.
Introduced by Diana Tuite, curator of Bob Thompson: This House Is Mine, and moderated by Kris Bergquist, Mirken Curator of Education and Engagement, this program featured Lindsay C. Harris, Interim Director of Education & Teen Programs Manager at the Brooklyn Museum, Mónica Mariño, Adult Learning Manager at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Saadiq Newton-Boyd, Community Affairs Manager at Brooklyn Justice Initiatives, a project of the Center for Court Innovation (CCI), Sophia Dawson, Art Educator with the Project Reset program at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Bashir Matan, Project Facilitator for Maine Inside Out and Youth Organizer with Maine Youth Justice, and Joseph Jackson, Director of Leadership Development at Maine Inside Out, Executive Director of Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, and Campaign Advisor of Maine Youth Justice. It can be viewed here.