Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration (Hardback)
  • Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration (Hardback)

Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration (Hardback)

Hardback 352 Pages
Published: 28/04/2020
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Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award
A Smithsonian Book of the Year
A New York Review of Books “Best of 2020” Selection
A New York Times Best Art Book of the Year
An Art Newspaper Book of the Year

A powerful document of the inner lives and creative visions of men and women rendered invisible by America’s prison system.

More than two million people are currently behind bars in the United States. Incarceration not only separates the imprisoned from their families and communities; it also exposes them to shocking levels of deprivation and abuse and subjects them to the arbitrary cruelties of the criminal justice system. Yet, as Nicole Fleetwood reveals, America’s prisons are filled with art. Despite the isolation and degradation they experience, the incarcerated are driven to assert their humanity in the face of a system that dehumanizes them.

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. Working with meager supplies and in the harshest conditions—including solitary confinement—these artists find ways to resist the brutality and depravity that prisons engender. The impact of their art, Fleetwood observes, can be felt far beyond prison walls. Their bold works, many of which are being published for the first time in this volume, have opened new possibilities in American art.

As the movement to transform the country’s criminal justice system grows, art provides the imprisoned with a political voice. Their works testify to the economic and racial injustices that underpin American punishment and offer a new vision of freedom for the twenty-first century.

Publisher: Harvard University Press
ISBN: 9780674919228
Number of pages: 352
Dimensions: 203 x 203 mm


The beauty in these often painful images (like Muhammad al Ansi’s 2016 untitled painting of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler who drowned as his family sought refuge across the Mediterranean) powerfully reclaims the visual idea of what it means to be imprisoned. Fleetwood seeks to revise the mainstream media narrative…by letting us see the diverse array of ‘studio photos, handmade greeting cards, drawings and other pieces of art made by incarcerated people’ that offer a story we on the outside have never really heard. - New York Times Book Review

[Fleetwood] brings together an impressive array of paintings, sculptures, murals, and photos that speak to the impact of incarceration on American life…In amplifying the stories of those marked by incarceration, she makes visible the individuals and families the carceral state has tried so hard to disappear and silence. - Los Angeles Review of Books

An urgently political text…Fleetwood’s training as an art historian is evident, as her analysis follows a narrative arc that moves across artistic mediums and within the physical architecture of prison itself…Marking Time, however, never becomes too wrapped up in its own theory to forget that the prison industrial complex is a system of people, many of whom are the most vulnerable among us…Moves fluidly between this art historical survey and a sharp attention to the social apparatuses that have enabled the very foundation of the prison state. - Jessica Lynne, The Nation

In her groundbreaking and expansive book…Fleetwood has created something of a foundational index of prison art, an incisive guide to the multitudinous practices, aesthetics, styles, and conditions of art made by those in captivity. Fleetwood makes evident simultaneously the unique conditions of prison and the unique features of the art that is made there. Critically, Fleetwood’s book frees this art, and these artists, from prison as a delimited and marginalizing niche. - Rachel Kushner, Artforum

A thoroughly researched and heartbreakingly personal look at prison art and the broader visual culture of incarceration…Woven throughout the book are striking illustrations of the work of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated artists…While prisoners have been largely excluded from public life, the art and images Fleetwood highlights function as material traces of the disappeared, who, through acts of creation, refuse to be rendered invisible. - Jackie Wang, Art in America

It’s so eloquently written and is the first book to explore art practices in proximity to the carceral state, representing more than a decade of research by Nicole and including the work of more than 70 artists. - Kate Fowle, Artnet News

The United States has the largest population of captive human beings on the planet, some 2.5 million, in a prison-industrial complex that constitutes a punitive universe walled off the larger world. What takes place behind those walls? Deprivation and cruelty, but also art, as we learn from this absorbing book. - Holland Cotter, New York Times

[An] ambitious book…Fleetwood deftly weaves personal narrative together with nuanced readings of artworks created by incarcerated people in order to illustrate how, in her own words, ‘art in prison is a practice of survival, an aesthetic journey that documents time in captivity, a mode of connecting with others.’…She models how creative expression can build the coalitions necessary for imagining and realizing a more just society. - Kimberly Probolus, Smithsonian

Illuminates the creative process of artists working behind bars… Incorporating the work of artists within several different mediums—from painting and sculpture, to photography and bricolage—Marking Time explores how the creation of art in prison can disrupt institutionalized patterns of dehumanization… Makes visible the lives, experiences, and creativity of the incarcerated, a population which, despite being over two-million in size, remains largely either ignored or disparaged. - Patrick Conway, Arts Fuse

At its heart, Marking Time is an abolitionist text, arriving during the recent international surge of the Black Lives Matter movement with a picture of mass incarceration as the less visible, but always present counterpart to police brutality…Thoughtful and stylistically accessible, Marking Time is meant for a broad audience across the inmates’ families, the academy, and the artworld…Frames art as a life-saving endeavor for many incarcerated artists. - Matthew Joseph Irwin, Momus

Fleetwood spent a decade researching the visual culture of the American penal system, and the product is as illuminating as it is heartbreaking. - Tessa Solomon, ARTnews

Introduced me to artists working outside of a hyper-monetized system and, equally incisively, highlights meaningful artistic practices operating with deep effect within and beyond our museums and galleries. - Zoé Whitley, Art Newspaper

Details the practices, products, and struggles of incarcerated artists...This drive to create art in prison illustrates convincingly that art and beauty are not merely added to an already good life; they’re more fundamental than that. - Splice Today

[A] stunning work…Fleetwood has curated a compelling and soul stirring narrative that inspires. What is striking to the reader uninformed in the tradition of prison art is not just the high quality but the incredibly clever use of available materials…A statement about the massive strength of the human spirit. - Beth Adubato, Criminal Law and Criminal Justice Book Review

As Fleetwood writes in her book, one of the calculated effects of incarceration is the breaking down of the prisoner’s sense of individuality and agency. Portraits, which are highly valued in prison communities, and self-portraits are an assertion of both…Her firsthand account of these realities, and their effect on her extended African-American family, forms the moving final chapter. - Holland Cotter, New York Times

Dovetail[s] with newly invigorated debates about the systemic inequities that inform, and deform, the entire American criminal justice system, from the cop on the street to the courts to the penitentiary cages…So many of the images in the book…operate as nothing less than mechanisms of ecstasy—as means by which the artists might project themselves ‘out of place,’ beyond the spaces and systems of imprisonment. In doing so, they are also beginning to imagine life as it might otherwise be, with each creative effort attempting somehow to summon into existence a new, more human world. - Jeffrey Kastner, Places

Fleetwood takes on this subject with passion and originality, looking at how the creation of art liberates the incarcerated…Fleetwood writes with poignancy about the power imbalance between the prisoner and the omnipotent state, and how this is reflected in artistic production—on paper, as sculpture, and even from a bootlegged cellphone…Such a beautiful volume on such an agonizing topic. - Choice

Fleetwood leaves no stone unturned as she envelops the reader in an immersive and bristling study of what it takes to make art and survive in the age of mass incarceration. A groundbreaking, unique, and necessary work. - Cheryl Finley, Inaugural Distinguished Visiting Director, Atlanta University Center Art History and Curatorial Studies Collective

Nicole Fleetwood’s illuminating narrative centers and amplifies the brilliant aesthetic engagements of those most impacted by the carceral regime. Through stunningly original cultural analysis, visionary curation, and intellectual tenacity, Marking Time confronts the violence of captivity and propels readers toward a future without cages. This book is an extraordinary achievement. - Sarah Haley, author of No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity

Maybe Nicole Fleetwood’s Marking Time offers that one thing missing from talk about incarceration in America: where words fail, there is art. Which is to say, Fleetwood breaks all of it down, by not flinching at the scars that come from knowing too many people who’ve done time or are doing time and recognizes that the challenge of seeing them, is a literal challenge—a challenge that is shared by both the unincarcerated and the incarcerated. Art, as Fleetwood explains, becomes a way of being seen, a way of making the shackles visible and the living visible, with the ultimate goal being a bigger measure of freedom. This is a book that reveals what’s been ignored. - Reginald Dwayne Betts, author of Bastards of the Reagan Era

Marking Time is a tremendous achievement that provides one of the most important discussions of prisons to date. Nicole Fleetwood illuminates the world of incarcerated artists and brings readers into their lives with powerful analysis and care. It is the kind of book that stays with you long after you finish, inspiring change in us all. - Elizabeth Hinton, author of From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America

Monumental, expansive, and revelatory, Marking Time masterfully traces the connection between prisons and the art world. This book will define how the intersections of art, incarceration, and the fight for freedom are written about for decades to come. - Jesse Krimes, artist, curator, and cofounder of Right of Return USA

Inspiring, powerful, and deeply moving, Nicole Fleetwood’s Marking Time captures the genius, the humanity, and the resilience of the brilliant artists trapped behind bars whom she profiles. Fleetwood takes us into the prison to experience the hope and pain and the artists’ experiences (and frustrations) associated with prison art. In her personal and erudite voice, Fleetwood helps transform the narrative of mass incarceration today, pushing us all to imagine and hope for a future world, in her words, without human caging. A terrific read, and the artwork is stunning! - Bernard Harcourt, author of The Counterrevolution: How Our Government Went to War Against Its Own Citizens

Marking Time is an unprecedented work built over nearly a decade of connection with currently and formerly incarcerated artists, their families, and community organizations working with incarcerated artists…Fleetwood’s care, delicacy, and rigor are a gift, and her ability to honor people subjected to incarceration is a guide for all readers, especially those trying to understand the life-shaping complexities of carceral systems. - Jeanie Austin, Resources for Gender and Women's Studies

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