Artist Spotlight: Reginald Dwayne Betts

by Melissa Wang, JAC Intern

“I started reading poetry in a cell in solitary confinement,” writes Reginald Dwayne Betts to the Justice Arts Coalition. Now an award-winning poet and Ph.D candidate in Law at Yale Law School, Betts began his poetic practice in prison.

Reginald Dwayne Betts.

As a sixteen-year-old, Betts was sentenced to nine years in prison for a carjacking – and it was there, “steeped in despair,” that he began “finding a language, varied and complicated and rich” to carry his imagination to his future. Betts is hesitant to slap a label on art, to glorify it as a unique form of salvation for all. Instead, he points to the individuality of art, the way poetry took him as a teenager outside of the four walls of his cell and allowed him to build possibility. “I don’t want to lift up poetry,” he says, “but rather I want to remember poetry.” Truthfully, as much as art can be a community process, it is also deeply personal.

“Art ends up being about what the writing or reading or witnessing does to you internally.”

Cover of Felon.

Art is consummation between each individual viewer and creator, and Betts highlights the role of the witness – or the reader – in realizing the significance of a work of art. In his 2019 anthology, Felon, he marries his professions as lawyer and as poet to create redaction poems from legal documents. Rather than the poem itself doing the work of blurring boundaries, however, he writes that “readers deserve far more credit than they get. They make the work matter, and they deepen the work by their engagement.” If the reader is willing to explore Betts’s legal background and the meaning of the redaction poems, they add to the value of the work. Comparatively, the isolation of prison creates a dearth of feedback and readership for incarcerated artists – just one reason why incarcerated artists must have their work shared and responded to.

These days, Betts enjoys Basquiat’s show at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, as well as the work of Titus Kaphar, with who he is collaborating for theMillion Book Project. The project is producing a curated 500-book capsule collection that will be placed in 1000 prisons in 50 states, sponsored by Yale Law School and a grant from the Mellon Foundation. All his inspiration for the project, says Betts, “comes from being a sixteen-year-old in prison,” along with countless moments over time with various books and writers. For him, words become “a kind of codex and map for life,” and these 500 books are meant to represent the idiosyncrasies of human life and all the diversity that entails. Consequently, the curation of these books is an ongoing and evolving process.

Kaphar, one of Betts’s friends, will be constructing a bookshelf for the project. Kaphar’s art, says Betts, reminds him to be capacious in artmaking and communicating the world. The ways in which they influence each other, however, aren’t just derivative of their artistry, but rather the same way friends influence one another. The conversations between their work evoke their connection as individuals, as ordinary people who hang out and chat and spend time together. Although the arguments of their artwork take different forms, Betts praises Kaphar’s body of work as “brilliantly inventive” and “visually hypnotic.” Thinking back to the Basquiat exhibition, Betts says that while Basquiat introduces him to a world he “didn’t know existed,” Kaphar makes him “reconsider a world” he knows well. These are just a couple of ways engaging with art, whether through creation or witness, serves to alter one’s world.

Art is worldbuilding in a place that fights to limits your world to four walls – the stretch of creative expression can not only help name current realities but also take you to a place away from harm.

“I want to believe that art gives a person understanding, and imagination gives us a vehicle to witness something other than ourselves.”


To learn more about the Million Book Project, check out Yale Law School’s page or the Mellon Foundation’s page.
You can view or buy Betts’s work on his website

Virtual Event 6/27: Refueling for Justice feat. “Art as Release” JAC Artist Panel!

The Justice Arts Coalition has been honored to collaborate on a panel within Refueling for Justice, an all-day, free virtual event for those in the movement for Black lives, highlighting Black artists, teachers, musicians, dancers, healers, speakers, and more.

From the Refueling for Justice website:

To win long-term, systemic change – we need to be able to go for the long haul.

Refueling for Justice is a free virtual event that creates a space where those who have been striving for justice can refuel. Where they can re-calibrate and join with others through life-uplifting activities and performances.

It’s like a relief station for justice marathoners!

We will stream a variety of Black-centered artists, performers, exercise experts, and practitioners of yoga and other practices.

No matter if you have been marching, writing, posting, simply surviving, or anything in between, we need you to be able to continue for the long haul to keep working to change our unjust justice system.

Refueling for Justice reached out to JAC to help put together a panel of returned artists, and we are so happy to highlight Kamisha Thomas, and Ray Palmore, and Khalid Thompson who will moderate the panel. Kamisha Thomas is a filmmaker, writer/director, and cofounder of the Returning Artists Guild, a network of currently and formerly incarcerated artists based in Columbus, Ohio. Ray Palmore is a self-taught visual artist, as is Khalid Thompson, who focuses on abstract work. Khalid led an amazing workshop called “Painting the Moment” with our Create+Connect series, and will be incorporating a shortened version of it into the panel this Saturday!

Join us at 1:30 pm for “Art as a Release” to hear Kamisha, Ray, and Khalid discuss their artistic journeys, thoughts on art’s personal, cultural, and social significance, and more!

R4J Panel (1)

Find out more about Refueling for  Justice on their website, Instagram, or Twitter, and go here to reserve a free ticket. If you are able, include a donation with your ticket to help compensate the facilitators offering their time, art, and expertise to the event. One ticket gives you access to all 16 (!) hours of events and programming.

 

Please share the event with your friends/family/loved ones, and we hope to see you this Saturday!

 

 

Remember Me

by Rosie Worster, Director of Programmes at The Fair Justice Initiative

Adwoa, Abena, Agnes, Ama A, Mary, Lamisi, Ama Y, Esther, Akosua, Salamatu, Zelia and Talata
Portraits by Francis Kokoroko for The Fair Justice Initiative’s “Remember Me” project

Nsawam Medium Security Prison is the largest in Ghana, located not far outside the capital of Accra. It is a place associated with utmost shame, particularly for the eighty or so women held in the female section. Crime is thought dirty, ungodly, unfeminine. Many of the detainees hide the fact of their incarceration from their families, deliberately isolating themselves to avoid that rejection. Others maintain a desperate line of contact with relatives who as the years pass change their numbers, visit less frequently, or forget them altogether.

It’s difficult to link this to the series of brightly coloured portraits in ‘Remember Me’, one for each of the 12 women serving death penalty and life sentences at Nsawam Prison. That contrast is deliberate, as part of an attempt to change the conversation around incarceration in Ghana. Rather than seeing these women as irredeemable, lesser and other, the project tells a story of creativity, hope and connection. It seeks to grant these women the validation of being remembered as people with identities more complex than their incarcerated status. 

The portraits are the last stage in a collaborative and participatory art project conceived by photographer Francis Kokoroko and artist and stylist Rania Odaymat, and facilitated and supported by The Fair Justice Initiative, a local NGO. Throughout 2018, Rania and Francis visited the prison to conduct different workshops that would encourage the women to express their own aesthetics, views and aspirations. The first focused on collage making, the results of which were later used to provide direction and inspiration for the final portrait making session. A second image-making workshop using a Fujifilm Instax instant camera explored body language and expression, a way to circumvent the prison restrictions on photographing faces whilst the permit to lift that ban remained pending. Finally, permission for the final portrait session was granted. The portraits were produced within a stipulated two-hour time window with the assistance of a team of volunteers from Dark and Lovely, and from make-up artist Sandra Don-Arthur.

In each photograph, the women swap their blue and white prison garb for traditional dress, elaborate headpieces and carefully coordinated accessories. They are strong, beautiful, and smiling. These are women who want to be remembered not just for their crimes, but for being Adwoa, Abena, Agnes, Ama A, Mary, Lamisi, Ama Y, Esther, Akosua, Salamatu, Zelia and Talata.

After being shown as part of the ‘Make Be’ exhibition at La Maison in October 2018, the advocacy work of the project is expanding to new forms. Rania, Francis and The Fair Justice Initiative are working to develop a coffee table book to present to diplomats and politicians in Ghana with the power to influence policy change. The book contains both the photographs and testimonies from the women themselves on their challenges, hopes and dreams. It is hoped that a second edition and a calendar will also be produced to raise awareness through sale to the general public, and that the exhibition will be able to travel to new audiences.

 

Rania and Francis’ work is available to see on their Instagram pages, @accraphoto and @rania_odaymat. You can follow the development of the ‘Remember Me’ project through The Fair Justice Initiative’s social media (Instagram/Twitter/Facebook) at @fairjusticegh, and on their website www.fairjusticegh.com.

About the guest contributors:

Rania Odaymat is an artist, stylist, creative facilitator and curator. She is one of the founding members of the Beyond Collective, a Ghanaian non-governmental organisation whose aim is to promote creative awareness and education, as well as facilitate artistic exchanges and collaborations. She is also a trustee of the Fair Justice Initiative.

Francis Kokoroko is a creative and photojournalist with a keen interest in documenting the ever-evolving cultures and everyday life on the African continent. He uses his images to communicate a personal message, and believes that emotion is the most important element of any picture.

Rosie Worster is the Director of Programmes at The Fair Justice Initiative (FJI), a Ghanaian non-governmental organisation (NGO) working primarily with detainees at Nsawam Medium Security Prison. Their mission is to combat discrimination and prejudice against current and former inmates, ensure equal access to effective legal representation, and improve the conditions of confinement in Ghanaian prisons.

 

A note from PAC’s Manager: Though PAC typically focuses on programs and artists in and around the US justice system, when we learned about the Remember Me project, we were eager to help expand its reach. We hope you’re as inspired by it as we are.