Living In a Place With No Prisons

Prison Abolition and the Collaborative Artwork of Jackie Sumell and Herman Wallace

By Nasrin Himada

The following text is excerpted from FUSE Magazine 35.3 (July 2012). In order to read the full text, you can purchase the article below.     

“Whether I live in that house or not, it makes no difference. It is the symbol of what this house is all about.”

—Herman Wallace

As a prison abolitionist and an interdisciplinary scholar whose research focuses on the relation between art and activism, I am especially taken by Jackie Sumell and Herman Wallace’s project, The House That Herman Built. Composed of a feature length documentary, [1] a touring exhibition and an educational campaign, it immediately stood out because of its ability to overturn the image of the prison façade as something that cannot be surpassed. Through the re-imagining of the borders between inside and outside prison, Sumell and Wallace’s project creates an expansive visual landscape that calls for the reimaging of grassroots activism: one that is connected to local issues, as it reconnects with global ones. But that is not all. At the heart of this project is the rigorous development of an “economy of practice” that sets up new modes of valuation, which, unlike in capitalism, invest in life as a source of power.

In March 2011, I visited New Orleans for the first time to present the work of Palestinian filmmaker Kamal Aljafari as part of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference (SCMS). [2] There, I took the opportunity to meet with New Orleans-based Sumell to talk about her project with Wallace. [3] Meeting and talking to her about community organizing work, prison abolition, art and architecture was transformative. The House That Herman Built cannot simply be read as political art. Rather, it is an example of how to offset the opportunistic rhetorical question, “How is art political?”—a question that is no doubt nothing more than a gimmick in some academic circles, but was nonetheless hard for me to avoid when interviewing Sumell. When asked how her activism and art practice collide, she responded by saying that they just do, without question: “I don’t make very many distinctions in my life…there are so many different things that make it impossible to not be as active as I am. And so many things that make it impossible to not be as creative as I am.”

In theorizing how art constitutes the political, what moves me and what I find most radical is work that demands different kinds of questions or propositions, and work that does not necessarily require neat answers. The House That Herman Built fits this description, initially driven by a fervor to free Wallace from prison and, by extension, instigating a conversation around prison abolition activism. [4] Art, in this sense, is utilized as a pragmatic approach to organizing, not as an aesthetic representation of a political situation. The art production and process of The House That Herman Built create platforms for mobilizing, and function as instigative forms of communication that ensure the continued efforts to mobilize against the ever-expanding prison-industrial complex. Deeply inspired by Sumell and Wallace’s challenge, I decided that I need to better articulate the significance of this relationship between art and politics as it emerges out of prison abolition organizing.

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Nasrin Himada is a writer, teacher and film programmer residing in Montreal. She is currently completing a PhD in the Interdisciplinary Program in Society and Culture at Concordia University. Nasrin sits on the editorial board of Inflexions: A Journal for Research-Creation, and Scapegoat: Architecture/Landscape/Political Economy.

NOTES: 

[1] See Nahed Mansour and Kole Kilibarda’s review of Angad Singh Bhalla’s Herman’s House in FUSE 35-3.

[2] Al Jafari’s Port of Memory is an experimental film about Al Jafari’s family living in Jaffa, a Palestinian coastal town next to the Israeli city of Tel Aviv. The film explores the gentrification and annexation of Jaffa via Israeli military urban planning procedures.

[3] Herman Wallace has been imprisoned in solitary confinement in the Louisiana State Penitentiary for 40 years.

[4] Prison abolition calls for the complete overhaul of the prison-industrial complex and focuses on building lasting alternatives to punishment and imprisonment. Prison abolition is about foreseeing the gradual elimination of prisons as alternative models are put into place that do not conform to—or try to amend—the current legal penal structure. However, prison abolition is not simply about the banishment and complete destruction of all prisons. Prison abolition activism offers an alternate imagination for community creation and development. It challenges the most radical forms of being in the context of the communities we work at creating and sustaining, which grow from anti-capitalist, anti-colonial and anti-racist sentiments. Prison abolition activism imagines much more complex forms of life that divest from state-controlled capitalist economies invested in penal infrastructure and procedures. Prison abolition not only foresees the elimination of imprisonment, policing and surveillance, but it also offers new modes of organizing that take into consideration the complex problems of present-day capitalist society that lead to the antiquated solutions of incarceration and punishment.

Image credit: Jackie Sumell

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