Criminal Justice

HBO's "The O.G. Experience" Turns Prison Art into a Political Statement

Pop-up art exhibition in New York focuses attention on the need for criminal justice reform.



On Saturday, February 23 HBO will premiere O.G., a movie directed by Madeleine Sackler, whose credits include the school-choice documentary The Lottery, and starring Jeffrey Wright, whose memorable roles have included Bernard Lowe on Westworld and Dr. Valentin Narcisse on Boardwalk Empire. O.G. is a prison drama that tells the story of a gang leader about to be released after serving 24 years whose life gets complicated when a new convict shows up. You can read more about it and watch a preview here.

Last night, HBO debuted a pop-up exhibition at a New York gallery featuring original art, video, and performance pieces created by former inmates. "The O.G. Experience" is powerful stuff and a reminder that movements for social change and policy reform are most effective when they combine all sorts of activity, from legislative work to cultural artifacts. The makers of the film and the curators of the exhibit are explicitly interested in calling for criminal justice reform and ending the drug war. Their exhibit helps to humanize inmates, convey the experience of prison, and show possibilities for redemption. Here's an excerpt from the statement of the show's curators, Jesse Krimes and Daveen Trentman:

The imprisoned population increased 500 percent over the past four decades, reflected by the 2.3 million people behind bars, 4.6 million more under supervision, and one in three Americans living with a criminal record. Despite our collective proximity to people directly impacted by the criminal justice system, however, there is a notable absence in the contemporary art world of artists who have a firsthand experience of incarceration.

OG Experience seeks to correct for that omission by featuring a national cohort of seventeen formerly incarcerated artists from various disciplines. The featured works—more than thirty, in total—lend themselves to a broad, multifaceted response to mass incarceration, using video, sculpture, painting, photography, commissioned installations, poetry readings, and performances. At its core, the exhibition expands the possibilities of how art might respond to a lived experience of confinement and helps reaffirm a larger truth: vast and rich human potential, artistic or otherwise, is wasted when 2.3 million people are behind bars.

Some of the artists on display were exonerated and others were guilty of their crimes, but the overall impact of the gallery show, which runs through February 25, is to focus the viewer's attention and create empathy, if not necessarily forgiveness, for criminal activity. It was also moving to talk with some of the artists, most of whom started doing art to kill time while on the inside. The boredom as much as anything else, a number of them told me, was excruciating, and they would do anything to alleviate it. Back in the 1990s, I lived in Huntsville, Texas, for a couple of years. That's where the death chamber in Texas is located and where the state's Department of Corrections is headquartered. There was an absolutely chilling prison museum there and the thing that got to me most were the jerry-rigged syringes inmates created to shoot themselves up with drugs. How desperate must you be to do that, but also how creative? The paintings, carvings, video installations, and more I saw last night reminded me of those improvised drug works, but also transcended the desperation to something much more inspirational.

Here are a few images I took at last night's opening and posted to Instagram (follow me) and Facebook (follow me).

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@r.craig.t1 in front of his work, Eval, at #OGHBO. Made with animal blood, depicts people killed by police. Incredibly powerful.

A post shared by Nick Gillespie (@gillespienick) on Feb 19, 2019 at 3:38pm PST

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@madeleinefilm, director of #OGHBO, standing in front of a massive art work called Apokaluptein:16389067, by Jesse Krimes, made on prison-issued bedsheets with color pencils, newspaper transfers, and more.

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Part of#OGHBO #STUDIO525 exhibition of art created by current/former prisoners. The Leavenworth Project: Memorial Trays, by Daniel McCarthy Clifford, commemorates 24 prisoners, including James Peterson, a Republican candidate for governor who was arrested in 1918 for making anti-war speeches while campaigning in Minnesota.

A post shared by Nick Gillespie (@gillespienick) on Feb 19, 2019 at 2:57pm PST

In 2010, I interviewed O.G.'s director about her documentary about New York's public-school lottery. Watch below.