Rahsaan “New York” Thomas doesn’t want your charity.
“I’m a big believer in accepting investments,” Thomas says in a letter to SF Weekly from San Quentin, where he is currently incarcerated. Instead, he references a quote from a Murri (Aboriginal Australian) artist named Lilla Watson: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
That linked liberation is one of the central themes of Meet Us Quickly: Painting for Justice from Prison, a virtual art exhibit Thomas curated with Jo Kreiter of Flyaway Productions, and the Museum of African Diaspora. Meet Us Quickly, which can be viewed on the MoAd website through Feb. 28, focuses on Black and Jewish solidarity in the fight for racial justice. Consisting of paintings, drawings, and comic strips made by incarcerated artists, the exhibit started well before COVID-19, when Kreiter first approached Thomas with a question.
“How can Jewish voices amplify the calls for racial justice via ending mass incarceration?” Kreiter had asked.
“That’s really not the best question,” Thomas responded. “The best question is how can Black and Jewish voices amplify the call?”
That might seem like a subtle shift in language, but for Kreiter and Thomas, it made all the difference between “white saviorism” and collaboration. “He kind of immediately called me out on isolating Jewish voices as the lead,” Kreiter says. Kreiter herself came to Meet Us Quickly from her own experiences with prison systems. Her partner was previously incarcerated and is currently on long-term probation. She recalls the struggles through financial support, and the layers of locked doors that separated her from the visitation room.
“It really brought forward for me how the experiences of being captured and captivity lived in my body as a Jewish person,” Kreiter says. Her grandparents escaped pogroms in the Soviet Union, and the inherited trauma of “having fled, that sense of otherness, that non-belonging” is something that Kreiter still holds to this day. “It came forward for me as I went to the necessary proximity to prisons and prison systems.”
“Proximity” is the key word: It’s something that Meet Us Quickly sees as crucial for understanding the full impacts of the carceral state. People in prisons tend to be discarded by the rest of society, Thomas argues in an essay accompanying the exhibit, and that the system strips them of their humanity and shrouds the insight they have to address complex issues: “Framed for your worst moment, you’re left out of the conversations about solutions to mass incarceration.The system continues its removal of individuals without addressing the root causes of crime. Generation after generation face the same systematic issues landing father and son in the same prison cell.”
So art’s function in Meet Us Quickly is two-fold. Part of it is freedom of speech and expression. “As a person incarcerated, I have lost a lot of freedoms. I have lost the rights to vote, travel, fully raise my sons, etc,” Thomas says. “That could make one feel powerless and hopeless, which are key ingredients for criminal behavior.” But art in itself is power and freedom, he adds. In one dreamy, realist painting — one of vining branches framing a sun-soaked field — Ben Chandler talks about the healing properties of making art: “In order to keep my sanity and commitment to my children, I paint. I utilize blank canvases to express heart, body and soul to those who view my work.” In another work, “Gary Harrell Plays the Blues,” Harrells uses pointillism to create contrast and colorful noise in his self-portrait. “A 64-year-old Black man, Gary paints to hold on to his humanity,” the accompanying description reads.
That leads into the second function: Meet Us Quickly was constructed to bridge the distance between prisons and the society that’s forgotten about them — to proximate. “Each piece was created by a human being who poured their heart out onto a canvas, and that canvas bares witness to the humanity of its creator,” Thomas says. Christopher “Khalifah” Christensen, a youth offender who is currently serving a 25-year sentence, painted a portrait of a woman closing her eyes in a serene expression. Inspired by a magazine cover, “Day Dreamer” is like a love letter addressed by Christensen. “She became what my soul desires — that while I dream of finding my other half, she is out there dreaming of finding me as well.”
Like “Day Dreamer,” the rest of the art in Meet Us Quickly contradicts the narrative that labels incarcerated people as “criminals” or “evildoers” as Oakland organizer Angela Y. Davis writes in Are Prisons Obsolete? That narrative “relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society” that disproportionately affects Black communities. They ignore the context or the larger systems that allow violence or harm to happen.
“You’ve got someone who’s behind the walls of San Quentin, who’s committed real harm, but who is also a multidimensional, full human being,” Kreiter says. “I think that’s a really important way into the conversation around: How are we meeting with punishment? What is the relationship or overlap between a punishment mentality and a racism-driven mentality?”
As an alternative, Kreiter looks towards restorative justice and transformative justice, two approaches (sometimes used interchangeably, though there is a difference) that reach towards the same goals: to respond to harm outside of a punitive justice model, like prison systems, with community-based approaches that center healing for the victim, and in the case of transformative justice, a change to the systems that allowed the harm to happen in the first place. When thinking about these alternatives, Kreiter imagines a different reality where her partner would have been able to pursue a transformative approach as opposed to a punishment-based one. “He, my family, myself, would have thrived so much better.”
Of course, people shouldn’t have to create a whole art exhibit in order for others to recognize their humanity. Even then, the exhibit was a miraculous thing. Because of the pandemic, which has endangered so many in the prison system (Thomas himself caught COVID-19), communication was limited. During the process of curating the exhibit, Thomas was only able to make collect calls every five days or more, and mostly corresponded with Kreiter and the Museum of African Diaspora through snail mail. But the exhibit, moved online, still came to fruition, and it’s Thomas’ hope that people who view Meet Us Quickly will see the “value, talent, and beauty of artists who happen to be incarcerated.”
“I pray people see us as people who have value and are worth getting proximate to, collaborating with, investing in, and giving a second chance.”
Meet Us Quickly
Through Feb. 28, Free.