America’s obsession with what life is like behind bars is often a fascination bordering on voyeurism, curiosities all too rarely turning into public change, even when injustices are the focus of a beloved character or celebrity’s storyline.
Tatiana von Fürstenberg’s new exhibit of LGBTQ prisoner artwork at the Abrons Arts Centre in New York is interactive in a way that not only asks for viewer connection, but provides it as well. “On the Inside” is a collection of 450 images created by incarcerated queer people, all of whom are still behind bars except for one.
Four years ago, Tatiana (a filmmaker and daughter of famed designer Diane von Fürstenberg) partnered with Black and Pink, a non-profit organization and grassroots newsletter for LGBT prisoners, to solicit submissions for the exhibit, receiving 4000 pieces of work and personal letters in return. The artists she has on display as part of “On the Inside” are all now receiving mail from viewers who attend the show and can text, print and send their messages directly to the artists on site.
Some of the exhibit is set up in a prison-like manner, with a solitary confinement cell holding the more erotic art. But Tatiana said that most of the work she received was overwhelmingly portraiture, and not necessarily of the sexual variety.
“I did get some erotica, but mostly I got loving [work],” she said. “There’s a whole love section.”
And the self-portraits, she said, were rarely of the subject in prison or in uniform.
“It’s how they identify as human beings and artists, and they all make themselves look extremely hot,” Tatiana said. “It’s actually how they feel and how they should because art gives you the freedom to be and look however you want.”
Tatiana was not only inspired to collect the work and put it on display, but she funded “On the Inside” completely on her own.
“I think that this show is very destabilizing,” she said. “I couldn’t get an art institution to be interested. I approached a bunch of different places—galleries and museums in LA and New York and no one was interested in this show. And meanwhile, the response has been so huge, and people have been so interested.”
Inspired most by LGBT prisoners because they are the most likely not to have any family members, children or spouses to receive support from, Tatiana hopes “On the Inside” will inspire Americans to start listening to disenfranchised minorities.
“All these voices really, really need to be heard, and that’s one of the big things I’m happiest about with this show,” she said. “I used the things that were available to me—I was really sick, so I had the time to do it, and I had the financial means to produce it, and I used whatever media access I had but not for myself but to give voice to these people that have zero. The collection took four and a half years to build, so this is four and a half years of little tiny pieces of paper making it through the cracks with messages in them. And it shouldn’t have to be that way. Voice and media have to be more democratic and have to be more inclusive—it really does.”
Outside of the artwork and accompanying letters from the artists, “On the Inside” offers facts and survey results from U.S. prisons.
“For one thing, I think people don’t realize—and I make it really clear in the show—that 1 in 90 Americans are being bars and in other countries, it’s 1 in 900,” Tatiana said. “So unless we’re giving birth to more criminals, which is not what’s happening, then there’s a lot of financial incentive. People are benefitting from the prison industrial complex. The linen company, food—it’s all publicly traded on the stock market. We’re really exploiting—we’re really making money, we as a society are making money off the most defenseless people in this country.”
Tatiana hopes the show clues visitors into the amount of crime that is “poverty-incited” like sex work or the inability some LGBTQs have to make or post bail once they are arrested.
“We’re taught to think that people behind bars are better off—that we’re safer because they’re behind bars,” she said. “It’s not a just system; it’s actually an injustice system. [These facts] are very real. And I guess for the queer population even more so…That was my big incentive, was to support people I thought were the most forgotten. Then it just kind of escalated.”
In the two weeks the show has been open, the artists have been sent more than 600 messages of support and love.
“People who have come to the show actually come back and take their time and text each and every artist,” Tatiana said. “It’s so moving, everything that people are writing.”
Tatiana said that trans women submitted more work than any other population, but that they were not coming from inside a women’s prison.
“‘Orange is the New Black’ has a trans woman in a women’s prison but that’s not actually what happens,” she said. “What happens is you’re a trans woman like my friend Janetta [Louise Johnson of TGI Justice], you get put in a men’s prison. You’re at very high risk for sexual assault—like very. And so what she would do was she would want to be put in solitary confinement for her own safety. She would ask, and they would say she wanted special treatment. She didn’t want special treatment, but she also didn’t want to be violated several times a day. Solitary confinement is total 100 percent deprivation of your senses; of anything. Of reading; of TV. For you to actually request that means you really feel endangered. I know she’s had a lot of trauma and she runs an organization of transgender re-entry programs, and I know that she’s had to do a lot of healing. A lot.”
Originally scheduled through mid-December, “On the Inside” has become so popular that is run has been extended through the first week of January.
“I mean, honestly, the response has been incredible,” Tatiana told GO, sharing that mainstream press has taken notice as well. “Everything’s been very detailed and very much tapped into the message of the show or the authority and humanity of each artist, which is incredible. The fact that these artists have agency over their own life has been removed but people have really been feeling that.”
There are no current plays for “On the Inside” to travel, but Tatiana hopes it can live on and inspire people to become more involved with incarcerated members of the queer community.
“When they come out to the families, maybe they haven’t heard from their families since. Which got me involved,” Tatiana said. “I really wanted to help and put money into the commissary accounts and write to and be a pen pal to the queer people behind bars because they very often haven’t gotten a single letter or any money in their commissary account. You have to understand that besides the seven bars of soap that you get when you first go in, you don’t get shampoo—you don’t get anything. A pen. Not like anything. So that was my big incentive, was to support people I thought were the most forgotten because they don’t have children or family who are supportive or spouses.”
Outside of supporting the show, Tatiana said there are other ways to show up for LGBTs behind bars.
“Black and Pink is the glue that holds the gay community together behind bars,” she said “It’s published by volunteers that are previously incarcerated LGBT people. If you want to have a specifically gay pen pal, you can get it through them.”
Other ways to help include hiring previously incarcerated people, like she did for administration work related to the show.
“If you have time and you’re a kid, you can pack a courtroom knowing that the person isn’t going to have anybody show up for them,” Tatiana said. “You can start a GoFundMe and raise $20 at a time to post bail. There’s a lot of things you can do.”
“On the Inside” is showing at the Abrons Arts Centre on the Lower East Side now through January.