By Naomi Riddle
28 February, 2020
‘The space between art for others and art for the self must be simultaneous, contradictory, vulnerable: slanted.’
Terrance Hayes, To Float in the Space Between (2018), p. 113-4
I am not writing to you about Bridget McKenzie or the sports rort scandal or pork barrelling. I am not writing to you about ministerial corruption couched as ministerial right. Or how we could relate this to the Berejiklian Government’s own funding scandals, such as when the NSW Arts Minister Don Harwin redirected grant money to suit his own purposes. (That same minister is now responsible for picking all grant assessors and can overrule any decision as he sees fit.)
I am not writing to you of the differences between sport and arts funding, and about how, in Harwin’s case, there was no public outcry and no resignation. I do not want to write to you about Judith Neilson’s Institute of Journalism and Ideas, and the Copyright Agency, providing a handout of $150,000 to the Murdoch press and Nine News in what is termed a ‘significant investment in arts coverage.’ As ever, the arts in Australia is caught between government subterfuge and entanglement, and its alternative—private or philanthropic funding.
I am not writing to you about this because I am weary just in the reading of it, and I no longer wish to speak of money, seeing as we are all in need of money, or know a better use for it, or know where it has come from, and we have spoken of this before, and will speak of it again.
I want to write to you of something else, because I would like to offer an alternative to the talk of budgets and money and ministers and waste. So, I will tell you about an exhibition I saw last year instead, an exhibition I visited in November, in the cold, when I was elsewhere.
The Pencil Is a Key: Drawings by Incarcerated Artists was on view at the Drawing Center in New York until January. It included more than one hundred and forty drawings from imprisoned artists across the world. The earliest work was from 1794 (Hubert Robert’s ‘An Inmate of Saint-Lazare Prison’, which Robert sketched while serving time during the French Revolution), and the most recent from 2019 (by Kurdish artist and journalist Zehra Doğan, who was incarcerated in a prison in Mardin, in Southern Turkey).
There were drawings on cloth, envelopes, prison-issued handkerchiefs, packages, and paper, with ink, pencil and pen. The exhibition included work from South Africa, China, Guantánamo Bay, Turkey, Syria, Chile, Russia, Poland, the United States and France. There were artists who had been imprisoned by fascist dictatorships, or by communist regimes, or by liberal democracies. Some were already skilled, such as Gustave Courbet; others learnt while they were imprisoned, such as Valentino Dixon, who was falsely convicted of murder in 1991 and, while serving out his sentence, began to draw imagined golf courses in coloured pencil. Dixon’s conviction was overturned in 2018—twenty-seven years after his initial sentence.
There were drawings of cellblocks, interiors, and portraits of fellow inmates. There were drawings of nudes, feasibility reports for future businesses, entire cities rendered from memory, and decks of cards.
Why do I want to try to describe this to you—something I saw and felt months ago, and only by chance? Because it was the type of exhibition that stays in your head and chastises you for all your firm and rigid beliefs about what art is and what it can be; because it was the type of exhibition that will sit beside you and whisper in your ear when you are trying to look at something else.
Because as much as The Pencil Is a Key was full of the cruelty human beings are capable of inflicting on one another, I did not come away with the feeling of despair. I was not being asked to wallow in the suffering of others; I was being asked to look at what they had created, and what they had made.
The artworks were displayed chronologically, in tight-knit groups on the wall and in vitrines, so that individual experiences of creation were always positioned in conversation with the next, and the next—a collective group, spanning continents and decades.
Halina Olomucki was incarcerated in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1939, before she was transferred to Majdanek—a German extermination camp in occupied Poland. All the horror of the world was contained within Olomucki’s rushed scrubby outlines of her fellow prisoners—charcoal ribbons that went up and down in a loop. A judgement. An indictment. A warning. A record. Nearby were two watercolours by Ruth Asawa, one of 120,000 Japanese Americans interned in concentration camps in the United States. Asawa, who would later attend Black Mountain College, learnt from the Walt Disney Studio animators imprisoned alongside her.
Angel Delgado (Cuba) devised his own set of secret hieroglyphs, just as Welmon Sharlhorne (USA) filled manila folders with felt-tipped geometrical designs and cosmic dreamscapes. Timothy Curtis (USA) drew cartoon mountains of egg-shaped faces in thick black texta, each one guffawing, crying, raging, or winking. Then there was the lightness of Azza Abo Rebieh’s pencil drawings of her family in Syria. In Mahmoud Mohamed Abd El Aziz’s ‘The Flowers that Bloomed in the Prisons of Egypt’ (2017), a group of headless seated figures played a board game, a single red bloom sprouting from each of their bodies.
It is easy, when you are inside this jumbled assemblage termed the ‘art world’, to lose sight of the act of making. Spending too long embedded within it can lead to a type of cynicism that calcifies like plaque. We become attuned to the smallness of the space we occupy, so we feel an urgency to hold those who do occupy this space to account. We become aware of intrigue, favouritism, unfairness, and inequality. We make stern pronouncements, like if it isn’t political, I refuse to look at it, or it’s too beautiful it’s just window dressing or I know why [artist’s name] is included in this [exhibition]. (All versions of phrases I have said myself, one way or another.)
The artist’s work in The Pencil Is a Key, the kind of work that demands that your attention, proves these pronouncements to be foolish, insincere, and false. Yes, the framing of the exhibition makes the work political, but it is also an exhibition that advocates for the simple act of drawing itself.
And who are we to say a work is of no value because the artist is interested in beauty or the abstract or a solid line? Who are we to say who has the right to make art, and what language that person must learn to even begin, and what we should classify as amateur or outsider or commercial or canonical or unworthy? And why do I get the feeling that so many exhibitions reiterate that there is an ‘art scene’, and it is the requirement of the artist to be part of this ‘scene’ for their work to be considered worthwhile?
What I wrote down afterwards: ‘I am only interested in this type of work now—artworks propelled forward by the energy inside of themselves. Actually, it is only about intention. Actually, it is only about making the mark and continuing. Actually, it might only be about persistence, or never sharing anything at all, just the doing of it, the action, of making. Isn’t the making more important than the seeing? No. We have all felt the feeling of making something and wanting it to be understood by another. Perhaps it doesn’t matter what it is we are showing, the value comes through the sharing. Or in the hiding and the sharing at the right time (Emily Dickinson), or in the waiting because it is not the right time and the time must catch up to you (Hilma af Klint). Or the value is in saying no and refusing to share, of making a work that is invisible.’
A problem: the primacy of the individual / the personal branding of the individual / the individual as the mode of success / or the identification of the individual with other individuals within a specific group / the ubiquitousness of the individual now / and the individual presented on the phone, and on the screen.
An answer, from Judith Butler: ‘That model of the individual is comic, in a way, but also lethal. The goal is to overcome the formative and dependent stages of life to emerge, separate, and individuate—and then you become this self-standing individual…But who actually stands on their own? We are all, if we stand, supported by any number of things.’
But back to the pencil and the line: fragile, available, and prone to smudging, disintegration, and erasure.
What The Pencil Is a Key taught me is that the perceived ‘centre’ does have something to offer the perceived ‘edge.’ And you can take what you have felt with you, and carry it across state and national lines, take it back to this place that New Yorkers think of as exotic and elsewhere and small, but to us it is not the elsewhere, but the here. And it is the here we are trying to build, because it doesn’t have the virtue of being perceived as the ‘centre’, but when you’re not at the centre you can get away with things—you can untie and do more. You can find a surreptitious energy, not in spite of, but because those in ‘power’ are looking away.
The Pencil Is a Key: Drawings by Incarcerated Artists was organised 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.
You can access the online version of Drawing Papers 140: The Pencil Is a Key: Drawings by Incarcerated Artists (New York: Rousseau, 2019) for free here.