Perspectives of Incarcerated Individuals Highlighted in New Exhibition at Milwaukee Art Museum
The San Quentin Project: Nigel Poor and the Men of San Quentin State Prison features stories from inside prison through photographs and a podcast.
Milwaukee, Wis. – September 13, 2018 – Grounded in the belief that art can promote dialogue and enable understanding, The San Quentin Project: Nigel Poor and the Men of San Quentin State Prison uses narrative to examine the ways in which the public might perceive prison populations. Opening October 18, 2018, at the Milwaukee Art Museum, this exhibition suggests that engaging in storytelling can restore dignity.
The exhibition debuts a series of visual documents made by artist Nigel Poor (American, b. 1963), in collaboration with men incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison in Marin County, California, the oldest such institution in that state. The series includes nearly 30 mapping exercises, on which the men in Poor’s class wrote their responses to and narratives about photographic images.
“The San Quentin Project offers a unique opportunity to consider the role of art in sparking conversations that question assumptions and open dialogue,” said the curator of the exhibition, Lisa J. Sutcliffe, Herzfeld Curator of Photography and Media Arts, Milwaukee Art Museum. “This exhibition seeks to not only invite audiences to discover how images of incarcerated populations have been codified, but also promote more critical skills in reading the cultural signs and power structures inherent within visual images. It is exciting to consider how the Museum might act as a catalyst in conversations about criminal justice in Wisconsin.”
“When I first started going into San Quentin, it was photography that gave me the opportunity to connect with the men inside,” said Poor. “This work became the catalyst for the creation of the podcast Ear Hustle that allows men to share their own stories in a more complex and nuanced way.”
Poor began the project in 2011 as a volunteer professor for the Prison University Project, a nonprofit organization that provides higher education at San Quentin State Prison. Poor first asked the contributors to react to photographs taken by artists, analyzing the images formally, as well as creatively, and exploring their meaning. In 2012, Poor was introduced to an uncatalogued archive of thousands of 4-by-5-inch negatives made inside the prison from the 1930s to the 1980s. This collection of negatives forms the basis of The San Quentin Archive Project, and was eventually incorporated into Poor’s classes. By seeing how the incarcerated men have mapped and interpreted the images made inside the prison, Museum visitors can get a sense of the people who are responding to, refuting, and translating these pictures.
“I hope people will realize that the mapping of these images come from real people with real feelings,” said contributor Tommy Shakur Ross. “This project shows not only our observation skills at work, but our compassion and our driving need to be heard.”
In conjunction with the exhibition, the Haggerty Museum of Art at Marquette University and the Milwaukee Art Museum will host a three-day symposium, November 1-3, 2018. The event will bring artists and experts from around the country together with groups working in Milwaukee to discuss how arts and educational programming might shift perceptions and attitudes about the criminal justice system and incarcerated individuals.
“To know something I did is actually inside a museum is one of the greatest things in the world,” said contributor Mesro Coles-El. “Projects like this are important because so often people in prison are just simply forgotten. This is in part because society looks the other way when it comes to prisons and incarcerated people. The other part is that hope is in short supply. That lack of hope causes those incarcerated to sit around and wait to die. An opportunity like this comes around once in a lifetime. It gives me hope.”
Nigel Poor (American, b. 1963) is a San Francisco–based artist and professor of photography at Sacramento State University. She is also a co-creator of Ear Hustle. Poor holds a BA in photography and literature from Bennington College and an MFA in photography from the Massachusetts College of Art.
The podcast Ear Hustle is part of the Radiotopia podcast network from PRX. Two full seasons are are available on iTunes, Google Play Music, Stitcher and many other podcast platforms.
The San Quentin Project: Nigel Poor and the Men of San Quentin State Prison is organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum.
Presenting Sponsor: Brico Fund
Supporting Sponsors: Bader Philanthropies and Milwaukee Art Museum’s Photography Council
Education Sponsor: Mastantuono & Coffee, S.C.
Symposium: The Milwaukee Model: Envisioning the Role of the Arts in Criminal Justice Reform
Co-organized by the Haggerty Museum of Art and the Milwaukee Art Museum
Sponsored by Brico Fund, Greater Milwaukee Foundation and WUWM 89.7 – Milwaukee’s NPR
Free and open to the public, but advanced registration at mam.org/MKEModel is recommended
Tuesday, October 23; Tuesday, December 11; and Tuesday, January 29, 1:30 p.m.
With Lisa Sutcliffe, Herzfeld Curator of Photography and Media Arts
In Conversation: Artist Nigel Poor
Wednesday, October 17, 6:15 p.m.
Hear from artist Nigel Poor; a reception will follow.
About the Milwaukee Art Museum
Home to a rich collection of more than 30,000 works of art, the Milwaukee Art Museum is located on the shores of Lake Michigan. Its campus includes the Santiago Calatrava–designed Quadracci Pavilion, annually showcasing three feature exhibitions, and the Eero Saarinen–designed Milwaukee County War Memorial Center and David Kahler‒designed addition. In 2016, after a yearlong renovation, the Museum reopened its Collection Galleries, debuting nearly 2,500 world-class works of art within dramatically transformed galleries and a new lakefront addition. This reimagined space also allows for the presentation of additional changing exhibitions. For more information, please visit: mam.org.
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