RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Tameca Cole was nearly done with her prison sentence when a guard said something that made her angry.
TAMECA COLE: Angry enough to mess up everything I had worked hard for.
MARTIN: But instead of replying, she channeled her feelings into a collage. The face on a gray background she made is now the opening piece at an exhibition at New York City's MoMA PS1. It is all art made by people affected by mass incarceration. NPR's Andrew Limbong went to see more.
ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Tameca Cole's piece, "Locked In A Dark Calm," is the first face on display at the exhibition. And then another face catches your eye.
One, two, three, four, five, six...
Or more like 600. Pencil-drawn portraits on 9 by 12 sheets of paper. This is called "Pyrrhic Defeat" by Mark Loughney.
MARK LOUGHNEY: I've been drawing portraits of my fellow inmates since 2014.
LIMBONG: Loughney is currently incarcerated at SCI Dallas in Pennsylvania. He says the hardest part of making art in prison is simply finding the time and space to do it. Prison is loud and chaotic.
LOUGHNEY: So it's hard for both me to focus and for my sitter to focus.
LIMBONG: One thing has gotten a little easier recently.
LOUGHNEY: The masks actually make it a lot easier because I don't have to focus so much detail on a nose or a mouth.
LIMBONG: The subjects are looking just askew, almost like they're in a Renaissance-era painting. Loughney says he hopes this gives his sitters a sense of dignity, a scarcity in prison.
NICOLE FLEETWOOD: Every second of your time in prison is a measurement of punishment. You wake up - you're being punished. You eat - you're being punished. You make art - you're being punished.
LIMBONG: Nicole Fleetwood is a curator of the exhibition called "Marking Time: Art In The Age Of Mass Incarceration." It features paintings, sculptures, photography. Taken together, the pieces show how deeply prison is embedded into our society.
FLEETWOOD: The fact that we have over 2 million people in prison is not about more, quote, "bad people" living in the United States than anywhere else in the world; it's about how punitive our society is and how unequal it is.
LIMBONG: Fleetwood mostly avoids descriptions of what people did to get into prison, sidestepping the questions of innocent versus guilty. Instead, she wants to show how prisons inflict widespread shame and humiliation, punishments that reach outside the cell walls. In the book that accompanies the exhibition, Fleetwood included photos of her and her cousins who were incarcerated, taken throughout the years in prison visiting rooms. She'd kept these pictures tucked away in drawers and cabinets, but by doing so, she realized she was continuing that practice of shame.
FLEETWOOD: And I started just hanging them around my home as a way of bringing my cousins into my day-to-day life - right? - and refusing to have them invisible behind prison walls.
LIMBONG: In the pictures, they hug, smile and pose against different backdrops. Fleetwood estimates there are millions of these types of photographs being kept and traded between incarcerated people and their loved ones. Larry Cook's piece "Visiting Room" is a play on this type of photography.
LARRY COOK: Part of it was wanting to explore this element of fantasy escapism and agency that's embedded in those environments.
LIMBONG: His staged photographs have his subjects posing by themselves in recreated prison visiting rooms, inspired by photos of his uncles who were incarcerated. But instead of looking at the camera, his subjects are facing away.
COOK: Having that faceless element allows us to kind of resonate personally in any way that we can in terms of entering into the photograph.
LIMBONG: There's an irony here - facelessness helping us see people kept mostly invisible. Tameca Cole, the artist whose fractured face collage opens the show, is out of prison now. And she's being seen more now than she thought she ever would. It's actually a little overwhelming for her. Thankfully, she still has her art.
COLE: It helps me to release something, something that needs to be released.
LIMBONG: Andrew Limbong, NPR News.
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