ALBANY — The auditorium of the Albany Museum of Art was packed recently for what many would consider a difficult conversation — mass incarceration and its relation to the slave trade.
Jimmie Gardener, a native of Dawson who was wrongfully incarcerated for 27 years, and Masud Olufani, whose exhibit dealing with race, “Memory and Meaning,” is on display at the museum through June 15, were on the panel of the event, with U.S. District Judge Leslie Abrams Gardner moderating the discussion.
Museum Executive Director Paula Williams acknowledged the difficulty of having such a discussion in her opening statements at the event.
“I think Masud’s exhibition certainly gives us a lot to think about, and that’s one reason why we do exhibitions like this, to create this thinking and discussions around subjects that, quite frankly, are a little difficult,” Williams said. “We think it’s important to have these discussions and continue the conversation so that we can affect change. ... Art is one of those ways that we can create these discussions.”
Much of the discussion involved some of Olufani’s pieces, like the powerful “Tight Packers: A Depleted Harvest,” which depicts the faces of black men in sardine cans surrounding a class graduation photo with several class members cut out.
Gardner said that the faces in the sardine cans were something that really resonated with him.
“The sardine cans really touched me because it’s like brothers who are voiceless, like myself, I was voiceless for 27 years, but those brothers are voiceless and a lot of those brothers don’t make it home,” Gardner said. “So when I see that imagery in the can, I think about all the individuals that I came across, the thousands and thousands of brothers that I came across that are faces in those cans to me, that aren’t home to be with their family and loved ones.”
Olufani, who went to school in Newark, N.J., said that he drew on his own high school experience for the piece.
“I was at this wonderful arts high school, this beautiful place in the middle of all this trouble that was going on in the city,” Olufani said. “I was going to school with some really talented, amazing people, but then there were some that were incredibly talented but also deeply troubled.”
Olufani spoke of one particular classmate, a girl named Carmen, who he described as “brilliant” and “beautiful” who had a real talent for acting, but had many issues at home.
“After graduation, I was deeply saddened to find out that she had gotten involved in drug abuse herself and gotten involved in prostitution and wound up dead at the age of 26,” Olufani said. “So when I think about people who are missing, there are people who are missing for a variety of reasons.”
Gardner, who is newly married to Jimmie Gardner, connected the idea of people being missing to her husband’s own experience. At the time of his incarceration, he had been drafted by the Chicago Cubs and was working on his college degree in the off-season.
“You walk the compound with up to 2,000 individuals, men who have families and loved ones and they’ve lost hope,” Gardner said. “This depiction takes me back to that time, seeing so many lost souls and having men around you give up hope every day.”
This led to a discussion on mental health in the prison system, with Gardner saying that there was not adequate resources for those with mental health issues in the system.
“These individuals are, I think, wrongfully put in prison and put in a position where they’re vulnerable,” he said.
He also discussed seeing and learning that many people he met in prison committed suicide.
Both the discussion of “Tight Packers” and the discussion of mental health led Olufani to discuss one of the biggest issues he sees with mass incarceration.
“One of the things that saddens me is, I think about the loss of potential,” he said. “Someone who is incarcerated because of a nonviolent drug offense or the person who is wrongfully convicted could be the person who cures cancer, could be the person who comes up with an incredible business idea that employs thousands of people in the inner city or in rural America, could be the person who is the next president of the United States. We just don’t know.”
Both Gardner and Olufani also discussed things that they are working on currently to continue these difficult discussions, with Gardner saying he hopes to create resources for individuals who are released and to help families of those incarcerated because, as he said, they are serving time with their loved ones.