VIDEO: Nicole R. Fleetwood, Author of Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration

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“What has been my biggest takeaway is the creative capacity of human beings under the most austere oppressive conditions imaginable. I’m so committed to the possibility that art-making provides to actually moving society forward towards other ways of being, of other ways of understanding justice and freedom and belonging.” – Nicole R. Fleetwood

MacArthur “Genius” Nicole R. Fleetwood is a celebrated writer, cultural theorist, curator, and art critic. Growing up in Hamilton, Ohio, she witnessed the vulnerability of her community to excessive policing, punitive surveillance, and mass incarceration, and the direct impact these had on her family, especially her male cousins. The concept for her groundbreaking book Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration started in 2010, when she hung photographs of her cousins in Ohio prisons on the walls of her Harlem apartment. “In talking to those pictures, I was trying to bring [my cousins] to life,” Fleetwood says. “I realized by not acknowledging their presence so directly, I was actually reproducing the logic of the carceral state.”

As both an artist and a cultural worker who supports the mainstreaming of incarcerated artist’s work into the public lexicon, I was bowled over by the clarity of the storytelling, scope of the subject matter, and sheer heart written into [Marking Time]. – Caits Meissner, PEN America

Marking Time explores the impact of US incarceration on contemporary visual art, highlighting artists who have been incarcerated alongside artists whose art examines US institutions and systems of confinement. Based on interviews with currently and formerly incarcerated artists, prison visits, and the author’s own family experiences with the penal system, Marking Time shows how the imprisoned turn ordinary objects into elaborate works of art. The book has been widely celebrated, and won the National Book Critics Award in Criticism, the John Hope Franklin Publication Prize of the American Studies Association, and the Susanne M. Glasscock Humanities Book Prize for Interdisciplinary Scholarship among others. Fleetwood is also the curator of the traveling exhibition, Marking Time: Art in the Era of Mass Incarceration, which debuted at MoMA PS1 in 2020. The exhibition was listed as “one of the most important art moments in 2020” by The New York Times and among the best shows of the year by The New Yorker and Hyperallergic.

Fleetwood is the inaugural James Weldon Johnson Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication in the Steinhardt School at New York University, where her work focuses on Black diasporic art and visual culture, photography studies, art and public practice, performance studies, gender and feminist studies, Black cultural history, creative nonfiction, prison abolition and carceral studies, and poverty studies. She is also the author of 2015’s On Racial Icons: Blackness and the Public Imagination and 2012’s Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness. Her writing appears in African American ReviewAmerican Quarterly, ApertureArtforumCallaloo: Art and Culture in the African DiasporaGrantaHyperallergicLitHubThe New York TimesPublic BooksPublic CultureSignsSocial Text, art catalogues, and edited anthologies.

Fleetwood has co/curated exhibitions and public programs at MoMA PS1, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Brown University, Aperture, Cleveland Public Library, Mural Arts Philadelphia, Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, and Worth Rises, among others. She is the inaugural Genevieve Young Writing Fellow of the Gordon Parks Foundation. Her work has been supported by Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center, American Council of Learned Societies, the Art for Justice Fund, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers of the New York Public Library, Whiting Foundation, Schomburg Center for Research on Black Culture and Ford Foundation.

She is at work on a memoir, Between the River and Railroad Tracks, forthcoming from Little, Brown.

Moderator Matthew Fields is an assistant professor of art at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB).