Walk into the University of New Haven’s Seton Gallery, painted the fresh, off-mint green of a new prison, and something might catch your eye as it rises out of the floor: a sort of small prison-house in the front of the room, exactly the size of a solitary confinement cell, with a prayer rug and stack of books inside.
How it and its creator, Connecticut-based artist Felandus Thames, got there is the story of Whereabouts Unknown, a new exhibition of Thames’ work at the Seton Gallery of the University of New Haven, exploring the mass incarceration of black men.
Whereabouts Unknown doesn’t have neat starting and stopping points, and it’s to the exhibition’s credit. Instead, it walks the viewer through a constellation of ugly and uncomfortable visual, social, and political narratives that Thames has made blunt, then potent through repetition, poetry, and heavy cultural reference
In one installation, Thames partially submerges fading photos of unidentified black boys, many still growing into their gangly limbs and skinny frames, in thick gobs of hair relaxer, where they will steadily deteriorate in their new prisons — a series of 17 mason jars. The piece was born out of Thames’s 15-year friendship with “surrogate grandfather” Fred Mayes and his wife Luberta. The 17 photographs in the jars were selected from some 2,000 photos that Mayes donated to him from a next-of-kin’s archive after her death.
“I’m doing an exercise in distillation — what’s most essential around the prison industrial complex,” Thames said of the installation.
For viewers familiar with the abrasive properties of relaxer — a product designed to chemically soften and straighten black hair — the works hit hard. The boys look out, locking eyes with the viewer as if to say hello and then, a little later, help! help! as they dissolve in what Thames calls “this post-colonial sludge” — the muck that white America and its law enforcement have pushed relentlessly onto black men for centuries.
“I’m thinking about the value gap in a sort of way,” Thames said. “You can send someone to jail and ruin their lives, or you can shoot someone down for stealing and that somehow is justified … I’m trying to tie all of these histories together.”
Buttressing the mason jars are hair brushes that have been pruned to read lines such as “They know mine I know their / Style They Know Mine I Am All / Of them They Are All Of Me They / Are Farmers I Am Thief,” from Etheridge Knight’s “The Idea of Ancestry.” These are alongside heavy black drawings of abstracted, ribbon-like forms, approximating bodies as they fall slowly through dark space. In these, the viewer must grapple with how aesthetically pleasing each object is, against the jarringly thoughtful whole.
All of which comes to a head near the front of the show, in one of the first and last piece viewers see before they leave the gallery. In this site-specific “prison-house,” a mess of 20th-century histories of black struggle, creativity, and mindfulness meet within four literal walls, through which viewers must peer to see a meditation area, stack of books, and twinkling lights inside. It reflects Thames’ own convoluted relationship with the prison industrial complex — as a friend of someone who was stopped and frisked in Harlem, spent the night in lockup, and equated the experience to a slave ship; as an avid reader of poets Knight and Amiri Baraka, whose writings on prison lent language to a hard reality; as a consumer of blues music, which developed in shacks in the Mississippi delta that he wished to recreate in some way; and as an architect of color who remembers trying to scoop up prison building projects because they were easy: prefabbed, pre-measured, and always approved at first appeal.
But the exhibition also doesn’t explain anything outright. Viewers must rise to the challenge of looking closer, and realizing that their work — their act of looking, and the action that looking may call them to do — isn’t done.
“This show was intended to reveal that artwork gets made slowly over time,” said curator Laura Marsh, who approached Thames about a site-specific show a year ago. “The mix of materials and content makes you feel like there’s more to investigate.”
Marsh sees Whereabouts Unknown as a kind of partner show to last year’s Speaking Volumes: Transforming Hate, also at the gallery. “I want to be able to continue a conversation and feel as though it’s coming from a genuine place. I’m spotlighting an artist and giving them the opportunity to make new work. I think of someone who I’ll be in dialogue with for years.”