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Carceral Causes: Representing Political Prisoners

An illicit photograph of IRA prisoners at Long Kesh in 1975 became a symbol of the Irish republican cause when a cropped version isolating hunger striker Bobby Sands’ face appeared frequently in media sources and inspired protest materials and honorific murals. Richard Hamilton adapted a still from a TV documentary about ‘blanketmen’ into the painting ‘The Citizen’. Images have predominated in funerals and memorials. These instances from the Troubles exemplify the complex visuality of political prisoners. Definitions of a ‘political prisoner’ are elastic. Indeed, assertions and contestations of political status are both strategic and symbolic. Criminal prisoners can politicise and become subjects of political campaigns, especially regarding miscarriages of justice. The plights and causes of political prisoners are often communicated to publics through images of the incarcerated figures. Artists, campaigners, propagandists, and editors extensively use images to advocate for, mourn, or even condemn political prisoners.

This panel seeks papers on representations of political prisoners from multiple historical and national contexts and political positions, in varied media and environments of dissemination and display. The panel welcomes submissions examining diverse global situations or concerning anti-colonial, anti-imperial, or civil rights movements. How and why do certain images become exposés of human rights violations or manifestations of political ideologies? What stakes are involved in the transition of images of political prisoners into exhibition spaces and art critical and historical discourses? How do political prisoners’ bodies contrast with portraits as meaningful objects? How do images of, and objects from, carceral sites materialise experiences and causes?

Session Convenor:

Barnaby Haran, University of Hull

Speakers:

Owen Atkinson, University of Leeds

Anthony Ramos: Portraying the Political Prisoner between Media and Experience

In 1967, the young soon-to-be video artist Anthony Ramos was imprisoned for eighteen months for refusing to register with his local draft board. This refusal to fight in what he viewed as an imperialist war in Vietnam put the experience of being a prisoner of political conscience as the very start of his artistic practice. Ten years later, after Jimmy Carter’s amnesty for those convicted of draft-evasion, he began two videotape projects which depart from the more ethnographic work he’d been making. Instead About Media (1977) and Decent Men (1977/2013) turned the camera on Ramos himself, and in the former case juxtaposed these direct addresses with the more mediated form of representation found in an archive local news interview. 

In Louis Althusser’s famous “theoretical scene” demonstrating the workings of “ideological state apparatuses”, he gives the example of a police officer “hailing” the subject who turns around to receive or submit to the call. Taking this scene more literally than Althusser intended in order to understand Ramos’ imprisonment also becomes a way to examine how the portrait can work as a record of the ideological processes that come to constitute the subject, and equally therefore the difficulties in producing a self-portrait that negotiates the different interpellations inherent to what Judith Butler calls “giving an account of oneself”. I use Ramos’ work to examine the possibilities for a political prisoner to examine their own experience, when the terms of that experience (such as “draft-dodger”) are structured by the ideology they are opposing.

Claudia Treacher, University of Brighton

“[W]ithin the Broken, White Shell”: Negotiating Political Representations of an Imprisoned Conscientious Objector within the Family

During the Second World War in Britain, approximately 60,000 people applied as conscientious objectors, and an even smaller minority were subsequently court-martialled after their applications to be registered were denied. This paper examines artwork created by one such court-martialled conscientious objector Don Treacher, who was my great-uncle. Treacher was imprisoned in 1942 in part due to the ambivalent expression of his politically motivated conscientious objection throughout the tribunal process. After he took his own life by jumping under a train that same year, Treacher’s anarchic anti-war drawings were held privately by the family.

In a letter from Maidstone Prison, Treacher noted that he ‘[c]ould have filled this letter with drawings, tremendous temptation.’ After his release, in which he faced the prospect of a further court-martial, Treacher completed a drawing and accompanying poem for his brother in which he expressed troubles ‘within the broken, white shell’ and drew a genderqueer figure whose body morphed into an artillery weapon. This paper examines the material conditions in which Treacher’s political subjectivity was expressed and further explores the negotiation of meaning within visual expression as a process by which the interpretation of images and their political subjectivities are co-constructed within the family memory arena.

Louis Netter, University of Portsmouth

Botero’s Broken Bodies and Prisoner Self-reportage from War of Terror

Columbian artist Fernando Botero is best known for his domestic scenes of rotund, fleshy, yet sturdy bodies with a distinct and consistent aesthetic and themes applied across his work. This is why his 2005 work that deals in painting and drawing with the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib (Iraq) is highly unique. This paper will explore the way in which this work is doubly effective in evoking in the viewer a sense of unease and shock as familiar bodies, typically portrayed by Botero in happier circumstances, are often alone, always naked and childlike in their fleshy rendering. Because of the familiarity with Botero’s bodies, these stark depictions of torture and after torture, point to the universal over the specific context of a prison in Iraq. Botero himself noted that the work was a clarion call to uphold the Geneva convention. Additionally, this essential contrast with his other work creates a new hyper reality in which society itself is in crisis and human degradation is acceptable. This contrast enables these images to avoid hyperbole and preachy, well-meaning activism and elevate the work as persuasive protest. Essentially, for Botero to repurpose his well-known actors in such grim circumstances is effectively shocking in itself.

Eliana Martini, independent art historian

Nota Pantzou, University of Patras

Art in Exile and Exile in Art: Remarks on Gender and Temporal Perspectives

Between 1940 and 1960, in a civil war-ravaged Greece, several leftist artists were confined in prisons and detainment camps for extended periods. Wood engravings, sketches and micro-sculptures survive as material testimonies and visual representations of this dark period of Modern Greek history. This material serves as the platform for investigating the characteristics and role of artwork produced in conditions of confined living, in other words, the key aspects of Greek art in exile and Greek exile in art. Specifically, this paper will juxtapose the output of two notable artists, Katerina Hariati-Sismani (1911-1993), and Yiorgos Farsakidis (1926-2020), who left behind a rich visual record of life as a political prisoner, investigating their similarities and differences of female and male gaze and the experience of the Civil War. Curiously, the drawings of Hariati-Sismani reveal little about exile hardships and highlight the hard work, seamless organization and solidarity of the female prisoners. This decision was attributed to the painter’s effort to “see the beauties, the white side within life’s darkness” and her adherence to the new forms of partisan resistance (stoicism, high morale, refusal to denounce their beliefs). Her drawings play upon the image of women as nurturers, homemakers and upholders of communal stability, which became a site of confrontation between the official state and its contestants. Conversely, some of Farsakidis’ sketches and engravings depict the violence and tortures of political confinement that marked his soul and body, while some of his works portray the realities of life as a political detainee.

Sarah Richter, University of Vermont

Carceral Silence: Santu Mofokeng’s Haunting Portrayal of Robben Island

Santu Mofokeng’s poignant photographic series, which captures Robben Island, the infamous site of Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment, goes beyond traditional documentary approaches. Instead of presenting a vivid presence, Mofokeng’s deliberate omission of human subjects directs attention to the carceral environment itself, forming a visual narrative that powerfully conveys the weight of political confinement. The stark emptiness within Mofokeng’s frames metaphorically represents the isolation and oppression endured by political prisoners on Robben Island. Stripping away the immediate human element prompts viewers to engage with the haunting traces of history embedded in the architectural structures and desolate landscapes. The absence of individuals amplifies the profound solitude characterizing Mandela’s incarceration, inviting contemplation on the broader implications of political struggle and sacrifice. Mofokeng’s lens captures the subtle interplay between light and shadow within the confined spaces, articulating the emotional and psychological dimensions of the island’s history. The muted tones and nuanced compositions evoke a sense of quiet reflection, urging viewers to confront the complexities of resistance, resilience, and the indomitable human spirit within the confines of a brutal political regime. In essence, Mofokeng’s photographs of Robben Island transcend mere documentation; they serve as a powerful testament to the enduring legacy of political struggle and the indelible marks left by those who faced captivity within its formidable walls. Through the absence of human figures, the images provoke a profound exploration of the carceral environment, encapsulating the resilience and indomitable spirit that persisted even in the face of the most oppressive circumstances.

Jon Blackwood, Gray’s School of Art, Robert Gordon University

The Incarceration of the Imagination: Political Prisoners and Political Violence in Contemporary Belarus

Belarus, described in the past as “the last dictatorship in Europe”, has been in the grip of a political crisis since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in the spring of 2020.

This paper charts the visualisation of political violence and the incarceration of pro-democracy protestors and activists in Belarus. We consider the role that imagery has played in documenting the violent application of state power to individual bodies, through documentary photography, digital manipulation of historical imagery, and the incarceration of art objects (the “Belgazprombank” collection).

There will also be analysis of images by and of political prisoners in Belarus as a vital part of pro-democracy campaigning. Currently there are 1,469 political prisoners in the country. We will show that contemporary art is buffeted by the frictions between the dictator Aleksandar Lukashenko’s pro-Russian orientation, based on a re-purposing of Soviet era imagery and conventions, and the more Western oriented political imaginaries of the opposition.

In the second part of the paper, the focus will switch to the multi-disciplinary artist Ales Pushkin (1965-2023), who died in Grodno prison last July. We will analyse critically, the main consequences and functions of imagery made by a prisoner serving a politically motivated sentence. Looking carefully at Pushkin’s career-long “dissident” status, we look at how he invoked and provoked the law in his career. The paper will also consider carefully the attempts he made to establish a prison art school (Turma), and drawings made by Pushkin in his last prison term.

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