Advancing New Narratives Through Art

Advancing New Narratives Through Art
Curtain Call at Clyde's with the late Ron Cephas Jones. Photo by Erin Baiano.

Because A4J worked at the intersection of art and advocacy, its approach to transforming the criminal legal system was not always traditional. In addition to supporting policy campaigns such as #EndTheException and #CLOSErikers, A4J also funded museum exhibitions, plays, films, albums, and books that gave audiences proximity to formerly incarcerated and justice system-impacted people.


In 2019, the artist Titus Kaphar collaborated with poet Reginald Dwayne Betts to create Redaction, a visual project incorporating legal complaints filed by Civil Rights Corps, a grantee partner. Exhibited at MoMA PS1 in 2019, and later collected into a book of prints and text, Redaction powerfully testifies to the urgent need to end cash bail in the U.S. Kaphar and Betts drew inspiration and source material from lawsuits filed on behalf of people who remained locked up because they couldn’t afford bail, despite never having been tried or convicted of a crime. Betts’ poetry, crafted from redacted legal documents, is coupled with Kaphar’s images, reflecting a sobering portrait of the harms caused by mass incarceration.

Redaction by Titus Kaphar and Reginald Dwayne Betts.

Voice of the Experienced

In 2020, Voice of the Experienced (VOTE)—a grassroots organization founded by longtime criminal justice advocate Norris Henderson—partnered with the acclaimed playwright and actress Liza Jessie Peterson, another A4J grantee. Together, they brought Peterson’s one-woman play, The Peculiar Patriot, to Louisiana’s Angola Prison. The play tells the story of Betsy LaQuanda Ross, a woman visiting a loved one who is incarcerated. Powerfully evocative of the dislocation people inside experience in their separation from family, Peterson’s commitment to truth-telling resulted in the play being shut down mid-performance by prison staff. This repression and dissent was captured in Cinque Northern’s moving documentary Angola Do You Hear Us?, produced by Catherine Gund’s Aubin Pictures.

In the corridor between the bars and chain-link fencing of a brightly-lit carceral facility, the leftmost figure points with right hand, in discussion with the other three, attentive figures.
Site visit to Angola State Penitentiary as part of the A4J National Partner Convening in New Orleans (2018). Photo by Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick.

The Writing on the Wall

In 2019, Dr. Baz Dreisinger, a professor of English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, collaborated with MASS Design Group and artist Hank Willis Thomas to create The Writing on The Wall, a traveling multimedia exhibition sharing writing from incarcerated individuals. Constructed from over 2,000 pages of essays, letters, notes, poems, and stories from people around the world—including the U.S., Australia, Brazil, Norway, and Uganda—Dreisinger and Thomas exhibited the work in public spaces across the nation and overseas, including a heavily visited installation on New York City’s High Line.

From her right side, a woman wearing jeans, an olive green long-sleeved shirt, sleeves pushed up past her elbow, a leopard-print backpack, and a tan cap, squats and looks intently upwards and towards the right, towards the artwork - black and white text, images, and drawings - like pages of a book - plastered against the wall in front of her behind her, and reflected on the white floor below her.
A visitor to Writing on the Wall (2019). Photo by Richard Davis.