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Activist Art Featuring Mumia Abu-Jamal

Activist Art Featuring Mumia Abu-Jamal
Violet Chernoff

Violet Chernoff

November 5, 2023

Art as activism, activism as art. In the John Hay Library’s current exhibition “Mumia Abu-Jamal: A Portrait of Mass Incarceration,” art fortifies a decades-long political push. An outspoken journalist and co-founder of Philadelphia’s Black Panthers, Mumia Abu-Jamal was arrested in 1981 for the murder of police officer Daniel Faulkner. The testimonies and court documents tell a muddied story, but Mumia is widely regarded as an innocent victim of police brutality. Following the conviction and many protests, his death sentence was turned to life in prison. But forty years later, the push for his exoneration prevails. 

Brown’s new exhibit showcases this enduring call for justice; it includes a life-size prison cell replica, a number of Abu-Jamal’s written works, a collection of public art, and more. Essentially, it provides an intimate view of Abu-Jamal’s forty-one years in prison and the general movement against mass incarceration. Quotes on the walls foreground the psychological agony of solitary confinement, presenting the idea of art as catharsis. Or art as expurgation from injustice. Inside a 6-by-9 foot solitary confinement cell, Abu-Jamal taught himself how to read and write music. He composed a number of pieces, unable to play or hear them aloud. 

The pieces were performed for the first time this past September, when Brown hosted a three-day symposium centering Abu-Jamal’s work. Brown graduate student, percussionist, and composer Marcus Grant arranged a live performance of Abu-Jamal’s “Vampire Nation,” a musical exploration of racial power dynamics. Through symphonies of violin and baritone percussion, the piece amplified Abu-Jamal’s message against settler colonialism and America’s long legacy of racism. Along with a panel featuring activist Angela Davis and a phone call from Abu-Jamal himself, the musical performance highlighted the deeply pernicious impacts of the carceral state. 

       Photograph by Nick Dentamaro and Brown University.

During his phone call, Abu-Jamal implored the Brown community to discuss these issues “with love, not fear.” A physical manifestation of his words, the Library’s exhibition showcases Black joy and resistance. There are a number of posters protesting female incarceration, with slogans like: “Nurture and care for the World. Free our Sisters!” If you look closely at the bottom of them, you can see the hashtags #EndCashBail and #FreeOurMothers. There are also posters that hone in on Abu-Jamal’s case, advertising protests or “CAPITAL ART,” a collection of art and poetry dedicated to Mumia. As these posters demonstrate, art has historically been the companion of protest. It is, in my opinion, the most soul-stirring medium, as it amalgamates pain and beauty, rage and reverence. Activist art distills complex human emotions into evocative physical pieces.

This article is not an advertisement for the exhibit, but I highly recommend seeing it. The archive—and more specifically, this archive of art—needs visibility. Incarcerated individuals are systematically dehumanized, and this exhibit serves as a humanizing force. Its place in this publication pertains to art as a form of expression; as respite; as communication; as activism. There is a reason that colored pencils sit among Mumia’s few possessions—they are a necessity. Activist art is imperative to the artists, the audiences, and the movements. To continue engaging with this sort of work, check out the collections of Zanele Muholi, Yoko Ono, Emory Douglas, and Kehinde Wiley. To continue engaging with the works of incarcerated individuals, see the collections of Brown’s Mass Incarceration Lab. 

Photograph courtesy of the author.

(Cover Image: Brice Patterson via the International Action Center organization)

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