In a month-long exhibit during Black History month, the painted portraits of black political prisoners will be on display at the Okay Space in Williamsburg. The “Correspondence” solo art exhibit, which is part of its creator’s larger “To Be Free” project, will be on display until Feb. 24. Artist Sophia Dawson said she always had an interest in the lives of the men and women locked up fighting for civil rights, but that interest was piqued when she learned about the death of one of the prisoners that made up the Angola Three.
“I’ve always had a series like this in mind because all of these prisoners have been locked up for over 40 to 45 years and they’ve all been convicted for crimes,” she said. “When Herman Wallace died after being released for a day, that was when I started to work on this seriously.”
Wallace’s death struck a chord with her and reawakened her creative process to learn more about his situation and others alike to shine a light on them.
“He finally got out but his health was so poor, which is the case for a lot of prisoners and that was a wake up call for me,” said Dawson.
The exhibit comprises 15 pieces of painted artwork, ranging in sizes, and an informative text about the subject of the work. She highlights more than a dozen prisoners of various movements in her series.
“The exhibit features and revolves around the different individuals of the Black Panthers and other liberation groups, who are still incarcerated for their involvement in those movements,” said Dawson.
Artwork featuring Mutulu Shakur, the stepfather of late rapper Tupac Shakur, Jalil Abdul Muntaqim, and Ed Pointdexter are in the exhibit.
In her research of other political prisoners, Dawson even started communicating with several of them by writing letters.
She said she wanted to use her art to revisit the cases of black political prisoner specifically and give people a chance to briefly learn about them.
“They all went in for petty crimes, and others were killed or coerced into confessions that have kept them away for decades,” she added.
With her show, she aims to engage viewers to not only observe but to also spark an interest within them to also advocate for their release and keep up with their sentences. On the wall alongside informational text about the people in the art, there will be postcards and a petition to sign. Dawson said their support for the show needs to go beyond the imagery.
“I want to have the art as the takeaway, but also have a handful of people really learn more and support the cause, and learn how to contribute because we need numbers,” she said.
Dawson, who is of Jamaican descent, said she nor her family has any close ties to the Black Panthers, but said after learning about them, she made it her mission to learn about the movement, its martyrs, and those who were imprisoned. She wants to challenge the perception people tend to have about political prisoners and the prison system overall. And she encourages participation because she wants it to be a starting point to mobilize people into action.
“It’s important for people to have the opportunity to see them in the same light that I’ve been able to for years,” said Dawson. “I hear people say they support raising the age and that’s it — they are not connected to the people, and how can you advocate for people and be separate from them?”
“Correspondence” at Okay Space [281 N. 7th St. between Meeker Avenue and Havemeyer Street in Williamsburg, (929) 250-2388, www.okay.space]. On display until Feb. 24. Free.