More than two million people are currently behind bars in the United States. Incarceration not only separates the imprisoned from their families and communities; it also exposes them to shocking levels of deprivation and abuse and subjects them to the arbitrary cruelties of the criminal justice system. Yet, as Nicole Fleetwood reveals, America’s prisons are filled with art. Despite the isolation and degradation they experience, the incarcerated are driven to assert their humanity in the face of a system that dehumanizes them.
Based on interviews with currently and formerly incarcerated artists, prison visits, and the author’s own family experiences with the penal system, Marking Time shows how the imprisoned turn ordinary objects into elaborate works of art. Working with meager supplies and in the harshest conditions—including solitary confinement—these artists find ways to resist the brutality and depravity that prisons engender. The impact of their art, Fleetwood observes, can be felt far beyond prison walls. Their bold works, many of which are being published for the first time in this volume, have opened new possibilities in American art.
As the movement to transform the country’s criminal justice system grows, art provides the imprisoned with a political voice. Their works testify to the economic and racial injustices that underpin American punishment and offer a new vision of freedom for the twenty-first century.
Available for purchase at Bookshop.org
“The beauty in these often painful images (like Muhammad al Ansi’s 2016 untitled painting of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler who drowned as his family sought refuge across the Mediterranean) powerfully reclaims the visual idea of what it means to be imprisoned. Fleetwood seeks to revise the mainstream media narrative…by letting us see the diverse array of ‘studio photos, handmade greeting cards, drawings and other pieces of art made by incarcerated people’ that offer a story we on the outside have never really heard.”
“[Fleetwood] brings together an impressive array of paintings, sculptures, murals, and photos that speak to the impact of incarceration on American life… In amplifying the stories of those marked by incarceration, she makes visible the individuals and families the carceral state has tried so hard to disappear and silence.”
“A thoroughly researched and heartbreakingly personal look at prison art and the broader visual culture of incarceration… Woven throughout the book are striking illustrations of the work of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated artists… While prisoners have been largely excluded from public life, the art and images Fleetwood highlights function as material traces of the disappeared, who, through acts of creation, refuse to be rendered invisible.”
“Marking Time is a tremendous achievement that provides one of the most important discussions of prisons to date. Nicole Fleetwood illuminates the world of incarcerated artists and brings readers into their lives with powerful analysis and care. It is the kind of book that stays with you long after you finish, inspiring change in us all.”
“Nicole Fleetwood’s illuminating narrative centers and amplifies the brilliant aesthetic engagements of those most impacted by the carceral regime. Through stunningly original cultural analysis, visionary curation, and intellectual tenacity, Marking Time confronts the violence of captivity and propels readers toward a future without cages. This book is an extraordinary achievement.”
“Monumental, expansive, and revelatory, Marking Time masterfully traces the connection between prisons and the art world. This book will define how the intersections of art, incarceration, and the fight for freedom are written about for decades to come.”
“Maybe Nicole Fleetwood’s Marking Time offers that one thing missing from talk about incarceration in America: where words fail, there is art. Which is to say, Fleetwood breaks all of it down, by not flinching at the scars that come from knowing too many people who’ve done time or are doing time and recognizes that the challenge of seeing them, is a literal challenge—a challenge that is shared by both the unincarcerated and the incarcerated. Art, as Fleetwood explains, becomes a way of being seen, a way of making the shackles visible and the living visible, with the ultimate goal being a bigger measure of freedom. This is a book that reveals what’s been ignored.”
“Inspiring, powerful, and deeply moving, Nicole Fleetwood’s Marking Time captures the genius, the humanity, and the resilience of the brilliant artists trapped behind bars whom she profiles. Fleetwood takes us into the prison to experience the hope and pain and the artists’ experiences (and frustrations) associated with prison art. In her personal and erudite voice, Fleetwood helps transform the narrative of mass incarceration today, pushing us all to imagine and hope for a future world, in her words, without human caging. A terrific read, and the artwork is stunning!”
“An urgently political text… Fleetwood’s training as an art historian is evident, as her analysis follows a narrative arc that moves across artistic mediums and within the physical architecture of prison itself… Marking Time, however, never becomes too wrapped up in its own theory to forget that the prison industrial complex is a system of people, many of whom are the most vulnerable among us… Moves fluidly between this art historical survey and a sharp attention to the social apparatuses that have enabled the very foundation of the prison state.”
“Illuminates the creative process of artists working behind bars… Incorporating the work of artists within several different mediums—from painting and sculpture, to photography and bricolage—Marking Time explores how the creation of art in prison can disrupt institutionalized patterns of dehumanization… Makes visible the lives, experiences, and creativity of the incarcerated, a population which, despite being over two-million in size, remains largely either ignored or disparaged.”
“This remarkable book is the result of Fleetwood’s years-long journey, starting from experiencing the pain and shame resulting when family members and others from her communities disappeared into jail and prison for years, decades, or life. In powerful prose that’s as humble and clear as water, she makes visible the creations of those our pathologically punitive society has done its best to make invisible.”
“Fleetwood leaves no stone unturned as she envelops the reader in an immersive and bristling study of what it takes to make art and survive in the age of mass incarceration. A groundbreaking, unique, and necessary work.”