Content Warning: This article contains references to violence and police brutality.
The new exhibition at the Ezra and Cecile Zilkha gallery, “Behind Enemy Lines”, opened this week on Tuesday September 21st. “Behind Enemy Lines” features the work of Ojore Lutalo, a formerly incarcerated artist whose art of protest offers both on the conditions he faced while incarcerated and commentary on the larger prison culture. Lutalo was present at the opening to make personal tours of the exhibition and explain his experiences to customers.
The exhibition was organized by the professor and chairman of the theater department Ron Jenkins, and is part of “Remember Attica: legacy of a prison revolt,”A series of Arts Center events commemorating the anniversary of the Attica prison uprising. The series includes lectures, films and the premiere of a play written by Jenkins himself: “Echoes of Attica”.
Lutalo was released from Trenton State Penitentiary (now New Jersey State Prison) on August 26, 2009, after spending 28 years in prison for armed robbery and weapons violations. He was too affiliated with the anarchist movements and the Black Liberation Army. He spent 22 of his years in solitary confinement in the Management Control Unit (MCU). The MCU is a sensory deprivation unit, containing cells roughly the size of an average bathroom. For every 48 hours Lutalo spent in the MCU, 46 were spent in this cage. MCU prisoners enjoy few privileges: their phone use is restricted, visits are controlled, and mail is censored.
“Everything is contained in this cell,” Lutalo said.
Movements outside the cell are chained, accompanied by body searches and guards carrying clubs.
The MCU is made up mostly of political prisoners such as prison lawyers, revolutionaries, prison unionists, etc. Part of the design was to psychologically break people up through isolation, with the guards using techniques described by Lutalo as “non-contact” torture. Ultimately, it was Lutalo’s social and political ideologies, not his crimes, that led to his isolation. Viewing his ideas as dangerous, Trenton State Penitentiary chose to isolate Lutalo from the general prison population as well as his beliefs. In his 22 years in the MCU, Lutalo has never been charged with a single offense.
Despite this history of captivity and censorship, Lutalo’s spirit, resilience and voice shine through in his works. Composed of various collages, many of which were created during his time in prison, Lutalo uses photographs, article clippings and graphics to simultaneously reflect on his experiences and draw attention to civil rights issues and brutality at within the prison system, especially with regard to black prisoners.
One play centers on the death of Marcia Powell, a 48-year-old prisoner in an Arizona state prison, who died in 2009 after being left in an outdoor cage in 108 degrees of weather. Others focus on Lutalo’s personal encounters in prison and with law enforcement, from his confinement in a bloody cell to his wrongly arrest by Colorado police in 2010.
Referring to this latter experience, Lutalo uses an excerpt from a recorded conversation between the two officers who arrested him, in which one officer says: “You should have shot the son of a bitch”. Numerous articles highlight racial injustices, addressing police brutality, parallels between the American prison system and the slave trade, and various significant historical events including the civil rights movement and the Black Panther Party.
Lutalo began creating these collages in part to maintain his sanity and to illustrate to his friends the physical and emotional realities he experienced during his isolation.
“In prison, I have always been active,” he said. “I had a strong sense of myself and my purpose.”
Lutalo designed his collages by compiling the headlines, images, and graphics from the few catalogs, newspapers, and magazines he was allowed to enter the MCU. Since no scissors were allowed in his cage, Lutalo folded, tore, and glued to his hand the pieces of paper that formed his commentary.
Lutalo’s art is unfailingly honest in its portrayal of the brutality and injustices that occur in the prison system and in our world today. But above all, Lutalo shows that, despite his experiences, he has no plans to stop fighting for justice anytime soon. He encouraged the crowd to organize against systems of oppression, even if it means arming themselves.
“[The police] understand this language, ”he said. “Speak their language and they will listen to you.”
With clippings encouraging members of the public to dare to resist, Lutalo’s daring work compels viewers to spark conversations and deepen their own lives, both inside and outside the gallery.
“Behind Enemy Lines: The Prison Art of Ojore Lutalo” will be on display Tuesday through Sunday from noon to 5 pm from September 21, 2021 to October 17, 2021. More information can be found here.
Quinn Canova can be contacted at [email protected].
Talia Zitner can be reached at [email protected]