Art Unbound: MoAD Releases the Art of San Quentin

by D. Amari Jackson

How do you get the public to be proximate with people in prison?  Immediately art comes to mind.  Art because it allows you to turn your most painful experiences into something beautiful.  Art because even in prison, you still have freedom of speech, freedom of expression… Art because it can be mailed past the bars.  Art because it’s attractive.  Art because writing is an art you practice.  It has to be art because it has always been art for you.”

—Rahsaan “New York” Thomas, The Art of Proximity

Gary Harrell, The Queen

By early August, the horror stories streaming out of San Quentin State Prison, California’s oldest correctional facility, had grabbed headlines for months.  Thousands of prisoners were ill, some were dying.  Inmate advocates, prison officials, and politicians debated who was to blame for the institutional crisis.  Many pointed back to the late May transfer of 200 inmates considered highly vulnerable to Covid-19 from the California Institution for Men to San Quentin by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.  Multiple headlines characterized the tragic situation at the facility as a “nightmare.”

Yet despite the fear, vulnerability, and powerlessness associated with the ugly crisis they found themselves in, 12 San Quentin inmates ultimately produced something empowering, therapeutic, and, yes, beautiful. 

Lamavis Comundoiwilla,
Mystery Found Its Harmony

Meet Us Quickly: Painting for Justice from Prison is a new, online exhibition presented by the San Francisco-based Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD).  Curated by San Quentin inmate Rahsaan “New York” Thomas, co-host and co-producer of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated podcast, Ear Hustle, the digital exhibit offers 21 works by 12 incarcerated artists along with Thomas’ compelling essay, “The Art of Proximity”, a timely statement on the meaning of art behind bars. Recently, in a documented conversation with an exhibit partner, Thomas offered the following on the project and his chosen theme:

“I pray this event shows the public the power of working with people in prison, and encourages more people to get proximate to incarcerated people. I learned about proximity from Bryan Stevenson, when he came to speak at San Quentin State Prison. I sat in the chapel, eager to hear the author of Just Mercy give me solutions to fixing the criminal system. He mentioned getting proximate to the problem in order to solve it. His words resonated. Finding ways to be proximate with the public became my first step to stopping mass incarceration.”

Make skeletons dance by Tafka Clark

“Bryan Stevenson was right,” continued Thomas. “I am accomplishing so much from prison through working with people who reach past the bars and into my heart, mind and passion. Through proximity, we can build relationships that chip away the walls of mass incarceration.”

The exhibition— part of a series developed in partnership with Flyaway Productions, Prison Renaissance, Bend The Arc Jewish Action, and CounterPulse, and made possible in part by a grant from The Creative Work Fund—includes ink drawings, acrylic paintings, linocut prints, and collage.  Each work is accompanied by an artist statement. 

Ruth by Bruce Fowler

“The opportunity to amplify the voice of Rahsaan Thomas and of incarcerated artists, and to design and produce a forum on the crucial challenge of mass incarceration, provided a way to bring together our mission to create dialogue around difficult topics, and to showcase contemporary artists of the African Diaspora in a way that was new for MoAD,” explains Elizabeth Gessel, Director of Public Programs for MoAD. Since 2005, the San Francisco-based art museum has advanced a mission that “celebrates Black cultures, ignites challenging conversations, and inspires learning through the global lens of the African Diaspora.” Though the museum is currently closed to the public, additional information on the exhibit is available at MoAD’s website at moadsf.org.

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