Intertwining poetry and portraits, two artists made an engaging statement about the bureaucracy and callousness of criminal punishment by telling the stories of people trapped by their inability to pay bail or small fines.
Any given day, the number of people in jail for the simple reason that they can’t afford to pay cash for bail is about the size of the city of Atlanta. Imagine the children whose parents aren’t home to help them get to school. Imagine the short-staffed small businesses who can’t get the job done. The language of the legal documents filed in courts every day is typically dense and ignoring the fullness of a person and stripping it down to legalese about crime and punishment.
Reginald Dwayne Betts, a poet and a lawyer, noticed that frequently these complaints, although often elegantly written, are so procedural “to the point that it obfuscates the central compliant, the central challenge.”
Titus Kaphar, a painter, sculptor and filmmaker, has been friends with Dwayne for years, and they share a passion for criminal justice reform, particularly the inability of so many people to leave the prison system just because they don’t have the money.
With support from Art for Justice, The two artists decided to join forces on the Redaction project, which combines Dwayne’s poetry and Titus’ art. Working with our grantee partner Civil Rights Corps, where Dwayne is on the Board, they obtained copies of complaints filed in places ranging from Montgomery to Ferguson, from Texas to California.
“I thought, ‘What if I took that same language and stripped it of everything that was superfluous to the grandmother who was locked up because they couldn’t pay a $500 fine?’” Dwayne says. “That was superfluous to the father whose brother or cousin or girlfriend was locked up for some breach of the peace and they couldn’t pay a small fine?”
He turned 70-page complaints into poems by redacting the legal language, leaving the portions that told the people’s story in a way that anyone could understand why it matters so much.
“How do we create art that actually mimics that conversation we’re having in the world? We wanted to do something that wasn’t in juxtaposition. Actually, we wanted to do something that each thing was integral to the other.”
“We have to find new ways of telling the stories of the human beings who’ve been crushed and brutalized in a way that resonates with people in the legal system, with people in our society,” says Alec Karakatsanis, founder and director of the Civil Rights Corps. “This project is really an outgrowth of our commitment to art and poetry and music and theatre – all the ways in which human beings can tell stories that reach other people.”
The text was silk-screened on black paper, some of which came from prison jumpsuits and sweatpants the artists shredded and turned over to a paper-maker. As Titus explains, what you see is this black paper and the text on the paper and then the redaction – the removal of pieces of the language – that leaves only the poetry, the individual’s story. Then Titus created portraits of the people whose cases were being pleaded.
“I made these portraits, I etched them on top of the paper and then I made another portrait on top of that as well and then said ‘Why don’t we put your text on top of the etchings I just made?’ so it evolved very organically,” he explains of his collaboration with Dwayne. “What you have is an effect of almost being blurred, but it speaks to the idea that this happens so frequently, it’s very difficult to distinguish one case from another.”
For Dwayne, there was another important aspect of this work. “How do we create art that actually mimics that conversation we’re having in the world?” he says. “We wanted to do something that wasn’t in juxtaposition. Actually, we wanted to do something that each thing was integral to the other.”
The Redaction collection was displayed at the MoMA PS1 in New York City, where the artists also hosted a conversation in the gallery that was filled to standing-room-only capacity by 400 attendees.
“People were engaged, people were deeply engaged, and it was a different demographic than your traditional viewer in the moment,” Titus says. “There are often very few Black and Brown people in the room where these things are being exhibited. … And the fact that we were able to create programming that created a demographic shift in the visitorship … I think is very powerful.”
Alec says when he first saw the completed works in person, he was blown away. “Aesthetically, they’re incredible. Journalistically they’re haunting,” he explains. “It was interesting to see the words that I had written in legal documents being turned into such a powerful tool for subverting the legal process, and telling stories about it that condemns that process.”
The artists donated a portfolio of prints to Art for Justice. According to Dwayne, they see it as “an investment in moving a culture. This is an investment in changing some of the practices of our criminal legal system.”