It’s late summer 1965 and race riots have just rocked Los Angeles.
A televised debate on the American dream is staged between black novelist James Baldwin and archconservative William F. Buckley. Baldwin’s speech sounds like a roll call of headlines from 50 years into the future: mass incarceration rates, poverty and Confederate army paraphernalia. He describes a reality that America — and Richmond — still struggles to face.
“In the South, when you are dealing with the sheriff or the landlord or the girl at the desk, it shows in millions of ways. What is happening in the poor woman’s, the poor man’s mind is this,” Baldwin said. “They’ve been raised to believe that no matter how terrible their lives may be, they have one enormous consolation: At least they are not black. Now I suggest, of all the terrible things that can happen to a human being, that [apathy] is one of the worst.”
That’s exactly the message being sent by a dozen incarcerated black teens from the Richmond Juvenile Detention Center: Fight apathy.
In the span of eight weeks they delved into a variety of artistic mediums at Art 180 under the instruction of local artists, activists and lawyers. Instructors were on hand to help them express personal solutions to America’s incarceration addiction.
The resulting exhibit, “Performing Statistics,” goes up Sept. 4, but viewers may not find any redemptive solutions. Like some instructors, viewers might worry that the world-weary youth are feeding them lines and performing a kind of magical thinking.
Mark Strandquist, a Virginia Commonwealth University graduate, is the self-described dinner-party host behind “Performing Statistics.” He has a rakish hairdo and a matter-of-fact way of speaking that suggests he’s thought about these difficult issues for a good, long time.
“I see art as a performance that creates new forums and allows us to propose alternative realities,” he says. “What would prison reform look like, if led by incarcerated youth? I give them people who help craft their message, but it’s not my role to speak for them.”
The statistics part of “Performing Statistics” illustrates why Strandquist and others are on board. In one example, they compare the $10,000 per year it takes to educate a teen in Richmond with the $150,000 of keeping a teen in a correctional facility. Virginia has the nation’s highest rate of referring delinquent students directly to courts, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. The rate is disproportionately skewed towards black teenagers.
The performing part includes not only artists, but also local figures who can enact policy change. Jeree Thomas, a lawyer at Legal Aid Justice Center, met with the executive staff of the Richmond court service unit about bringing detainees into Art 180.
This summer program concluded Aug. 13. But with school starting, Thomas is working to end zero-tolerance policies and to limit school-based arrests. She wants to see more investment in post-dispositional programs such as “Performing Statistics,” she says.
“I see how once youth are incarcerated they are kept in prison for longer than the national average, and they aren’t equipped with the tools they need to be successful citizens when they return home,” Thomas says.
Art 180 program director Taekia Glass says many of the teens have incurred psychological damage.
“We’d be fools to think [‘Performing Statistics’] is a magic bullet,” she says. “I agree with consequences for bad actions, but some teens are incarcerated because of aggressive policy, and they’re disillusioned by being put inside so quickly.”
The first pieces you’ll see at the exhibit are large, black-and-white self-portraits. They were facilitated by photographer Terry Brown, who describes herself as a “white, middle-aged woman whose humor doesn’t come off with young people.”
“Law prohibited us from showing their faces, so we had to work with selective lighting, or block their faces with hand gestures,” she says. “It was a somber and vulnerable place, and I let the sitter decide the pose while their friend worked the camera.”
Other installations include a life-sized replica of a jail cell. There are panels that serialize personal stories, and booths with public service announcements recorded at WRIR-FM studios with DJ Mikemetic. The announcements will play over Virginia radio stations when the exhibit goes on tour this fall, beginning with the refrain, “If you knew me, then. …” Detainees read a series of emotional messages. “You’d know that I’m scared of losing my life over a crime,” one teen says.
There are screen-printed posters, too, from a visit to Studio 23. Many resemble protest posters with such messages as, “There’s not a big difference between you and me.” Molly Fair, an artist with Studio 23, says working with incarcerated youth was a tricky balance.
“You can’t just command someone to express their personal story in a way that also offers solutions to a systemic problem like mass incarceration,” Fair says. “To me, it’s not enough to imagine a perfect world. But I believe you can make a difference by letting those teens know that you care about their human dignity.”
Half-light pours through Art 180’s small windowpanes, and T. Jackson, a 17-year-old detainee, scribbles away. He’s thinking about whether the exhibit was worth all the vulnerability. “Talking about [my situation] and the police was so difficult,” he says, “but I did it because it might change something for others.” S
“Performing Statistics” opens Sept. 4 at Art 180, 114 W. Marshall St. A reception will be held from 6-9 p.m.