Fury Young is a born and raised New Yorker. Growing up in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, he was witness to the neighborhood’s many changes, which included a high wave of crime, drug addiction, conflicts with the police, and more recently luxury gentrification.
The latter development has been even more indicative of a great income inequality that plagues our city. One can stroll through the Lower East Side (or Williamsburg, Bushwick, Harlem, and many more neighborhoods), and see a great dichotomy of public housing complexes and luxury condominiums. This rigid division of upper and lower class citizens creates a rift in the quality of life. There’s typically a larger police presence in the areas with lower income housing, and these sections of town have a much higher rate of incarceration.
The United States of America incarcerates more people than any other nation in the world. While the United States represents about 4.4 percent of the world’s population, it houses around 22 percent of the world’s prisoners. The fact is that most of these prisoners come from impoverished backgrounds and in segregated communities. A vast majority of these prisoners are doing time for non-violent crimes. This has led many of the leading sociologists, politicians, artists, and activists today to declare that the U.S. has been implementing a “New Jim Crow” in the shape of mass incarceration.
Fury understands the fact that there is still rampant segregation amongst New York’s neighborhoods, as well as throughout the nation. This is what led him to create his concept multi-disciplinary project “Die Jim Crow.” Die Jim Crow is going to be a concept album recorded with current and formally incarcerated musicians in and around prisons throughout the U.S. Fury is currently raising money and awareness of the issue of mass incarceration by selling both his art and the art of prisoners who are part of the project. You can now see the works of the incarcerated artists and support them and this project on Die Artwork. Fury also organized an exhibition of some of the works, which is on view now at Pine Box Rock Shop in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
The work of these artists reveals a very human and compassionate side to the people society often disregards and considers to be inhuman. Often these works are meticulously rendered using very simple mediums because a prisoner’s access to fine art materials is limited. However, what is abundantly clear is the expression and emotion that emanates in these images.
We’re not given much background on the artists themselves, because it is through their work we’re given a personal insight into their thoughts and their subconscious. Tameca Cole (in Alabama), has addressed the struggle young black men and women face against the criminal justice system. Her drawing Corruptio Optimi Pessima (2014) portrays a faceless black figure crucified on a cross with a plaque that reads “I Surrender.” The crucified figure is holding the scale of justice, which is imbalanced. On the left are the names of victims of recent racial profiling and police brutality (in the case of Trayvon Martin, a lawless “neighborhood watchman” who decided to take the law into his own hands); and black and Latino-individuals who are profiled on an alarmingly high rate. On the right hand scale we have “crimin’ while white, legal?, biased evidence and corrupt D.A.’s, police brutality and profiling, and the use of lethal force versus apprehension. The right side is clearly weighing down the left, suggesting that this justice system isn’t fair and balanced like it is supposed to be.
Leon Benson (in Indiana) creates intricate mixed media drawings on handkerchiefs, which is a common canvas in the prison system. His incredible drawings include text, which contain the artist’s own words, and are often poetic. For example the piece Monster Slayer (2015) shows a man wearing a thorny halo (probably the artist himself) pierced with a dagger through his back. The poem, reads like a modern underground hip-hop song, and is a poignant reflection of the human condition. The artist states “This is a metaphoric battle between spirit and flesh, because the biggest monsters is ourself (sic)!”
Obadyah-Ben-Yisrayl’s drawing Queen of the Earth (2015) shows a silhouette of a black women with an Afro, which draws parallels to the 1960s civil rights movements. In the background a women in African fabrics holds an rifle in one hand and is making the “power to the people” fist with the other hand. The artist also includes a symbol for the Uhuru movement, a pan-African liberation movement for the economic and political freedom of black Africans throughout the world. The border of the drawing is made up using an African pattern, and the continent of Africa makes up the four corners of the paper.
Mark Springer’s vibrant paintings address many issues within the prison system (and society as a whole) such as the psychological and physical toll on the inmates, labor rights, loss of identity, the justice system, freedom, and surveillance. In an artist statement, Springer says: “Old castle or new, Uncle Sam wants you. The new plantation, the United States penal system, industry. The misuse of authority on many levels, the political parties are motivated by controlling interests, liberty has lost it’s way in the justice system. Big brother sees almost everything. There’s no place for liberty to plant it’s feet. The lock to the gate to keep us imprisoned is blocked by the mind set of Jim Crow, and the key to true freedom is out of reach. God help us.”In addition to the politically charged works, there are also artworks that envision life outside of prison. These artists create a natural world for themselves within their minds. Spoon Jackson, who is also a renowned poet, draws beautiful yet haunting landscapes from the mind’s eye. D. Artise and Robert “Sage” Jones create vibrant celebratory scenes of black musicians, dancers, and artists. Michael Sawyer makes beautiful and delicate etchings on glass of natural landscapes and animals.
Visit Die Artwork to view more artwork by these artists above and others and learn about the mission to create the concept album.