May 12, 2020 • Patrisse Cullors on decarceration and the freedom of performance
Best-known as one of the three women who founded Black Lives Matter, and the powerhouse behind the grassroots movement that’s now transforming the Los Angeles County prison system, Patrisse Cullors is also a formidable artist. Fresh on the heels of major victories in both arenas—her Reform LA Jail’s initiative, Measure R, passed by a landslide 71 percent in the February election, and recent performances at LTD, Frieze LA, and The Broad have won her the attention of the Los Angeles art scene—Cullors talks here about the intersection of activism and creative expression.
THE THROUGH LINE between my art and activism is a political framework based on the liberation of Black people in particular, but also marginalized communities at large. I’m trying to aestheticize a politic so that art becomes a forum and a container for what I believe in politically as well as what I believe in spiritually.
Sometimes the activism looks like a legislative win, or building out a policy like Reform LA Jails, which will decrease the County’s incarcerated population by expanding alternatives such as community-based mental health and addiction programs, and hold corrupt officials accountable. Or ensuring that we decarcerate during a global pandemic. We just launched a lawsuit against the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s department and the County Board of Supervisors about the conditions in the jails. Covid-19 has ravaged the jail and prison population. So many people locked up at the local, state, and federal level are getting sick. It’s a cesspool.
Last year I received my MFA from the University of Southern California, and together with a crew of my classmates, cofounded an MFA program in social and environmental practice through Prescott College in Arizona. The inaugural faculty includes photographer Star Montana; art critic and artist Alex Dorriz; artist and art educator Noe Olivas; and artist and art educator Jake Freilich. We also began the Crenshaw Dairy Mart, an art gallery and studio space in Inglewood. Alongside For Freedoms—an artist-run platform started by Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman—Californians United for a Responsible Budget (C.U.R.B.), and Justice LA, an anti-jail-expansion coalition, The Dairy Mart has started an artists’ fund, where we’re asking artists to share works made with the prompt “Care, Not Cages.”
Our existence is resistance. Western society and white supremacy bifurcate—make things one or the other—and our bodies cannot do that. When you ask someone to make dichotomies, to not be their full self, that’s when you witness a human being in pain. When I’m making work, I’m thinking: “How is my audience going to feel this, smell this, see this? Is it going to reshape their bodies? Transform their bodies?”
Performance art for me is a place of agency. Throughout much of my life and the lives in the community I grew up in, we had little to no agency over what happens to our bodies. That’s why dance became such an important skill I learned as a child, because it was something I could control. Performance art feels very similar. I get to tap into the most creative, sometimes the most painful, sometimes the most joyful parts of me—and I can communicate it in a nonlinear way. That evokes something that is often deeply ancestral and deeply rooted. I’m not always a big fan of using verbal communication to share those thoughts. Art, for me, often feels like the most holistic response to what I want to be sharing with the world.
The Prayer to the Iyami, which I performed in February at The Broad, was one of my most ambitious pieces. I designed a set of wings that span about twelve feet. They were made with my brother’s used clothing, and they were battery-operated so that they went up and down. They were really heavy. The idea was sort of like carrying two decades’ worth of weight around: the impact incarceration has had on my family, and specifically my brother, because of his mental illness. We were transforming that weight into this really gorgeous set of wings suggesting the image of a bird or any being who can fly. Wings often mean freedom, or release.
The piece lasted about an hour. It was physically painful, but also incredibly relieving and meditative—and a real conversation with the audience, who also had to stand for about an hour. At the end of the performance, we hear James Baldwin calling for a rent strike. And we’re in the middle of downtown in a city that’s been heavily gentrified. So that was a super, super layered piece: looking at contemporary issues around mass incarceration, and the prison industrial complex, and mental health—insisting on being beautiful.