PROJECT #4971 (or John Henry and the Patchwork Penitentiary)
Work for Installation
As an undergraduate student at the University of Florida, I took a graduate level course entitled ‘Anthropology of the African Diaspora’. A key assignment was the completion of an extensive outline of William Cohen's At Freedom's Edge: Black Mobility and the Southern White Quest for Racial Control. In his book, Cohen portrays a Reconstruction era convict leasing system that continues to inform my examination of criminality, gender, and race- and how these three elements interact2. Supported by the Black Codes, these correctional methods maintained their objective to punish, diminished the role of rehabilitation, and utilized blackness as a marker for criminality, while strengthening the connection between state justice systems and private business. By using the law to effectively retain/regain control of Black labor, Cohen demonstrates the origins of significant themes that have come to define black male identity. I wondered, since these penal methods were successful in the 19th century, how might they evolve into contemporary criminal justice practices?
Intrigued by this prospect, I began researching the American criminal justice system as reflected through state prosecution and sentencing procedures. The racially skewed proportions of current prison populations revealed shocking parallels to the trends of the Reconstruction period. Further investigation revealed the development of the prison-industrial complex and its accelerated growth during Post Civil-Rights Era. As I became more sensitized to this relationship between private industry and state governments, I considered the ramifications of this alliance. If corporations own increasing numbers of state prisons, where does justice fall on the continuum? If profit margins are the bottom line in these instances, how do we police sentences, or monitor the treatment of prisoners when they are at the mercy of lucrative interests? I believe the answers to these kinds of questions are actually the catalyst for an important dialogue that could inspire change. Despite the media’s homoerotic preoccupation3 and its sensationalized view of prison life4, which seems to undermine potential reform movements, I suggest the use conceptual-installation art as a conduit to encourage an intellectual exchange addressing the mounting vulnerabilities of Black men (and increasingly Black women) as victims in the Prison-Industrial system. Through thoughtful visual cues, perhaps members of the American community would be mobilized to act.
My current research can be classified into 3 themes that are the conceptual framework of the Project #497 installation: 1) The historical origins and the distinct legendary character of John Henry, 2) Improvisational African-American quilting techniques, and 3) Black vernacular musical traditions.
As a symbol, it would be difficult to discount the contribution of John Henry to the American cultural lexicon, but the factual components serve to create additional layers of meaning. For example, many ‘steel driving’ men, who built the railways that linked the various regions of the United States, were leased convict workers5. In fact, the real John Henry was a young Virginia man who was convicted at the age of 19 for a term of ten years. This places him solidly within current statistics claiming that 12,603 black men of every 100,000 aged 25-29 are incarcerated (compare that to 1,666 white males per 100,000). Showing John Henry as both convicted criminal and celebrated hero is a paradox that boldly illustrates hu
manizing complexities. By examining the details of the legend, within the context of historical realities, I can use John Henry as an archetype that resists easy categorization. In the installation itself, larger than life size representations of the black male body will be incorporated into garment-handling systems (like the motorized racks you might find at your local dry cleaner) to reference the cyclical nature of recidivism and the oppressive nature of state supervision.
Lutisha Pettway (American, 1925-2001)_"Bars" work-clothes quilt, ca. 1950_Denim and cotton_80 x 84 inches_ The Collection of the Tinwood Alliance_Photo courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art
The male body forms will be constructed from patch-worked fabric that recalls the improvisational quilting style of Gee’s Bend6. With access to the Schomberg Center’s Art and Artifacts Division some of my final creative choices will be informed the department’s textile holdings as well as the successful procurement of existing prison uniforms from around the country. I am in the process of facilitating an apprenticeship with the Gee’s Bend Quilting Collective to ensure a high level of authenticity. And by using these quilting techniques to create the “skin” of the body forms, I am acknowledging the fusion of African and European textile arts that characterize the unique American quilting tradition7.
Black Vernacular Music
Often credited as one of the first examples of the “Blues”, as well as one of the first “Country” songs ever recorded, the ballad of John Henry is the most recorded folk composition in American history8. In an effort to create a multilayered “viewing” experience, I believe the addition of an audio component serves to enhance the conceptual message of Project #497. The John Henry ballad is a rare cultural product that transcends race, in its ability to be ‘owned’ by both the mainstream, and the “other”. That being said, a specific exploration of Black vernacular music (work songs, bluegrass, spirituals) will be featured prominently throughout the installation using lyrics, melodies, and rhythms as a sonic representation of this cultural history. Sheet music of popular tunes from the Schomberg Manuscripts and Archival Collections, in addition to selections from the Moving Image and Recorded Sound (MIRS) Division are necessary research components. Collaboration with ethnomusicologists and folk musicians is another important element of the research process.
Ultimately, I think that the African-American community is complicit in the mainstream’s criminalization of poverty (and in many instances black male-hood), in an effort to establish an identity distinctly separate from that of our incarcerated brothers and sisters. Through scholarly research I hope to discover what this fiction of separation can tell us about the reality of racial profiling still apparent in the American social paradigm. By presenting these findings in the form of installation artwork, a broader audience can be reached, without diminishing the quality of rigorous intellectual investigation. Project #497 is a work that requires academic analytical tools, but the installation itself and supplemental materials (i.e. exhibition notes, artist statements, artist talks, etc.) also provide a space that is welcoming to those outside the Academy. The initial idea for John Henry and the Patchwork Penitentiary owes its life to a scholarly text and the concentrated time and resources of grant support will be instrumental in bringing the concept to fruition. I am learning to approach the art making process in terms of both the physical objects and the ideological forms that are expressed through writing. To be able to disseminate my findings in both these realms connects fully with my goals as an artist and citizen. I not only want to create work of artistic merit, but pieces that inspire continued scholarship, and help perpetuate a community of thoughtful discourse.
1. Scott Reynolds Nelson, Chapter 2: To The White House, Steel Driving Man- John Henry- The Untold Story of an American Legend, see page 39, John William Henry c[olored] (#497).
2. Davis, Angela Y. "Race, Gender, and Prison History: From the Convict Lease System to the Supermax Prision." Prison Masculinities. Philladelphia, PA: Temple UP, 2001. 35-45.
3. Video: “In prison, booty is more important than food”, see, http://digg.com/people/In_Prison_Booty_Is_More_Important_Than_Food_A_Man_s_Butt, July 2008
4. Prison Idol? Reality TV Show Courts Nevada Prison, see http://safetyandjustice.org/info/nv/story/725, September 14, 2005
Jack Osbourne - Osbourne To Star In Prison Reality TV Show, see http://www.contactmusic.com/news.nsf/article/osbourne%20to%20star%20in%20prison%20reality%20tv%20show_1078082, September 21, 2008
5. Scott Reynolds Nelson, Chapter 4: Ward-Well, Steel Driving Man- John Henry- The Untold Story of an American Legend, see page 69, September 1868 -January 1869, Burnham Wardell signed over 225 men to the Covington and Ohio Railroad for the continuation of the western section of the line. John Henry left on December 1st with 14 other men.
6. Scott Heffley, Stylistic Characteristics, Bold Improvisation: Searching for African-American Quilts, see page 10, Pattern Improvisation- Familiar quilt patterns are reinvented and may change across the quilt surface.
7. American quilts communicate a bond between African American and European American women and traditions, see http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ug97/quilt/opening.html, 1997
8. Scott Reynolds Nelson, Steel Driving Man- John Henry- The Untold Story of an American Legend, see front flap (book cover sleeve)