Paul S. Briggs–Cell Personae: The Impact of Incarceration on Black Lives
My initial inspiration for Cell Personae was rooted in my work as a pastor and experiencing first-hand the impact of incarceration on Black men and their families. My congregation and I found ourselves doing front line outreach efforts centered on an increasingly failed prison system with regards to Black lives. When my tenure as a pastor ended in 2014, my identity as a Black man and my vocation as an artist-teacher continued to bring me into contact with issues surrounding mass incarceration, leading me to take a closer look at this public crisis. I read an article in The New Yorker about the Angola Three; I watched 13th, a recent documentary film that explores the intersection of race, justice, and mass incarceration in America; and I read Michelle Alexander's book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010).
At the opening of 13th, we hear Barack Obama make the following observation: "So let's look at the statistics. The United States is home to 5 percent of the world's population, but 25 percent of the world's prisoners—think about that." The film's title, a reference to the 13th Amendment that on paper abolished slavery, makes the case that, soon after the amendment's enactment, former enslaved people were arrested and imprisoned on an immense scale, resulting in one of the largest prison booms in history and setting the stage for the mass incarceration of Blacks that remains in effect today. The film notes, "Though Black men represent only 6.5 percent of the American population, 40.2 percent of American prisoners are Black. While statistics show that one in seventeen white men will eventually be incarcerated, one in three Black men will go to jail. Amazingly, more African Americans are in prison than were ever enslaved in America." My usual practice of meditative pinch forming and conceptual slab work dealing with spiritual iconology became disturbed.
Cell Personae: The Impact of Incarceration on Black Lives, a ceramic wall sculpture installation, comprises twenty-five slab and coil sculptures. Each cell is approximately 6 x 8 inches, corresponding to the size of the average 6 x 8-foot prison cell in the United States. The single "cells" dramatize the state of being in the prison system, whether a person is inside or outside of a prison cell. Once one has been touched by the system, one does not get to choose the persona the public sees. This is evident on every application form and from the stigma of being a felon. The categorical disenfranchisement of felons is applied to every facet of life, including voting rights and employment.
In the works seen here, I've attempted to vary the visual and literal access to interior space one experiences when viewing them. Some of the internal elements found in these works break the plane of the box/cell, while others meld interior with exterior representations of form and space. Both approaches are intended to visualize the dichotomy between those imprisoned and those who, although free, carry the traumatic social and emotional realities that ensue from incarceration.