by Isa Berliner, JAC Intern
We are excited to share the virtual Rendering Justice exhibition from Mural Arts Philadelphia, in partnership with the African American Museum in Philadelphia. Curated by artist Jesse Krimes, Rendering Justice is an expansive examination of mass incarceration and an unflinching depiction of contemporary America. The artworks are part of Mural Arts Philadelphia’s Reimagining Reentry program, which supports formerly incarcerated artists in the creation of public art projects. Works included feature varied responses to the displacement of bodies and revocation of autonomy entailed in incarceration. The works affirm how artists maintain a sense of identity, regain their agency, and grapple with coercive forces until — and after — they reenter society.
The exhibition features a cohort of nine artists from across the country whose work highlights a broad range of issues bound in mass incarceration, with a particular focus on Philadelphia. While the number of people jailed and imprisoned by Philadelphia’s criminal justice system has declined dramatically in recent years, the city remains one of the most heavily incarcerated in the nation. Rendering Justice can be seen here through January 3rd, so don’t miss the chance to experience this powerful exhibit!
JAC had the opportunity to talk with Michelle Daniel Jones, one of the featured artists, to learn more about her story and her mural project Point of Triangulation, made in collaboration with Deborah Willis.
When Michelle Daniel Jones took a class with Deborah Willis at NYU, she never imagined she would soon be inviting her professor to help bring a project to life. Michelle thought Professor Willis’ class was amazing in so many ways, teaching her to look differently at familiar texts and see pictures and photography in a new light. She was especially impacted by their discussions of Frederick Douglass, explaining how “I knew Frederick Douglass was an amazing writer, I knew he was an amazing speaker, I knew he was an amazing advocate for formerly enslaved people, but I didn’t know he was into pictures. And I didn’t know how much he believed that pictures could change narratives.” Professor Willis gave Michelle a whole new take on things she used to take for granted, teaching her to think about why Douglass took so many pictures of himself, what he was trying to do with that message, and what he believed was possible through photography.
Michelle was inspired to ask that same question for people who are formerly incarcerated: “Could photography change the way in which we are viewed as formerly incarcerated people?” And so was born the inspiration for Point of Triangulation. But before it became the project you can view today, Michelle used the idea for her final paper in Professor Willis’ class. Michelle had read and written a lot about stigma and was interested in exploring the “afterlife of formerly incarcerated people” and how they can navigate the stigma and stereotypes that follow them around. Michelle’s paper, “Photography, Weaponized Stigma and the Formerly Incarcerated,” can be read here.
Michelle first learned about the SOZE Right of Return Fellowship while she was still incarcerated. Though at first she was not confident about applying, she decided to convert her final paper from Professor Willis’ class (which already included a project proposal) into a formal proposal for the fellowship. When she got in, she was given the opportunity to turn the idea into reality at the NYU Gallatin Gallery.
Michelle was soon contacted about doing a similar project with Mural Arts Philadelphia. This felt like a whole new level to Michelle. “Philadelphia is covered with thousands of murals. That’s who they are. They put their beliefs, their challenges — there’s a beautiful history — and they put them on the walls all over the city.” So Michelle was determined to create a version of her project that could really speak to the city. The first thing she did was consider who she would be photographing and featuring in her project. “I wanted to make sure that the people in the Philly show were leaders, and were leading the way for other formerly incarcerated people — guiding and teaching. I wanted to be sure that I had men and women, and gender nonconforming, and transgender. I wanted to make sure I had people who represent the world, but also represent Philly specifically.”
When Mural Arts first reached out to Michelle about the project, she was immediately worried about finding a photographer: “I am not a trained photographer and I needed somebody who could get deeper. You can just take a picture of someone but there are people who are able to get at the heart of the individual, pull out the soul through the eyes. They will do more than just take a picture of a person, and I wanted someone to do that.” Mural Arts knew Deborah Willis had been Michelle’s professor and told her that Willis was actually born and raised in Philly, suggesting they collaborate. Unsurprisingly, Michelle was extremely nervous to contact her professor, who was also an internationally known artist and photographer. One day, she finally summoned the courage and picked up the phone. Having already read Michelle’s original paper, Willis understood the project. In Michelle’s words, “it was another way for her to work with a student who is actualizing her research and ideas… So it really became something that she could walk along with me on, and I was very excited about that. So she did!” Michelle expressed how honored she was to work with Professor Willis, who she respects tremendously as a professor, but also just as an amazing person on the planet.
In the summer of 2019, Deborah Willis joined Michelle in Philadelphia. Before taking the photos, Michelle met with everyone she wanted to feature, going all over Philly to talk with them. She interviewed 8 people in 2 days, riding all around the city in a Lyft. It was important to Michelle that she sit with each person in a space they felt comfortable, taking the time to learn about them in a real and meaningful way. On the day of the photoshoots, Michelle organized the posing and stature, constantly talking to the people who were being photographed, asking questions about who they are and what they believe: “give us those eyes! I was really just trying to pull out of them that strength, which is exciting.” Michelle recalls that day with fondness, describing how she was running around, hurrying people back and forth to stay on schedule, making sure they looked good and felt good about what they had on, doing hair, and just making sure everything went as smoothly as possible.
Point of Triangulation “challenges the average human being to confront the stigma that they create, produce, and often weaponize against formerly incarcerated people.” The photographs create a triangle. On one side there is a photograph of a human being who is dressed in carceral clothing, looking directly at you the viewer. The second side juxtaposes a photograph of that same human being looking directly at you, but wearing their clothing of empowerment, “feeling their full selves in their bodies.” A red line drawn on the ground forms the third side, where you, the observer, complete the triangle. “With direct eye contact they’re asking: will you weaponize stigma against them now that you know they’re formally incarcerated?”
“What we are seeing is that when people know someone is formerly incarcerated they choose to lock that human being out of access, resources and opportunities. They choose to limit their capacity to create wealth, limit their capacity to reunite with their children, limit and eliminate their capacity to have a home, and the list goes on and on.”
Michelle conceptualizes her project in two parts. The first part is about the observer confronting their own role in perpetuating stigma and the second part is designed to show “the beauty and the diversity and the style and the swag and the confidence” of these people who have been impacted by the criminal justice system. It’s about “who these people are and seeing them as people.” The project is a multimedia, immersive experience. You see the beautiful photos, you see text on the floor and walls, and you hear audio clips of people speaking their truth to you. All of these elements can be seen in the virtual version of the exhibit.
Michelle hopes audiences will understand that these issues are not something outside themselves: “Everyone has stepped in this. Every single individual, they have a belief about incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people. And the stance that they take, particularly the negative stance, has an impact well beyond them and well beyond their own personal beliefs. It feeds into the cultural identity of our community and activates the social consequences of criminal convictions.” Michelle hopes Point of Triangulation will motivate people to “check themselves,” and see the project as an opportunity to reflect upon their beliefs and actions towards formally incarcerated people.
“I really want everyone to recognize we do this. We make stigma, we produce it. And then, when it actually stops a formerly incarcerated person from moving forward from the past, when it drags stigma behind them, and weaponizes stigma behind them, then they’re stuck in criminality.”
Michelle points out that people say you should just be able to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” but when you’re “literally dragging tons of stigma behind you,” it’s much more of a challenge to pull yourself up. The goal of Point of Triangulation is to encourage people to reflect and do a check: “to think and do differently, to recognize that they are part of the problem.”