Curator Nicole Fleetwood Promotes Abolition Through Art

The academic and curator has built a community of artists inside and outside carceral walls through her book and exhibition “Marking Time,” now on view at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

by Abigail Glasgow

Nicole Fleetwood wearing a white blazer
Courtesy of Lanscine Janneh/BFA. Image treatment by Ashley Peña for W.

Curator Nicole Fleetwood grew up in the late ’80s and early ’90s in a working-class, post-industrial town called Hamilton, Ohio. Today marks a full circle moment for the academic and activist, whose exhibition “Marking Time”—which first debuted at MoMA PS1 in September 2020—comes to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. According to Fleetwood, “Marking Time” is a lot of things: “It’s about contemporary art, it’s about making work under oppression, and it’s about collectively imagining another type of society.” And its return to a location just 30 minutes from her hometown has historical and personal significance.

It was in Ohio where Fleetwood directly witnessed the convoluted relationship between environmental devastation and mass incarceration. As a result of artificial environments (redlining, wastelands known as Superfund sites, and fragmentation of neighborhoods thanks to steel mills) her community was made especially vulnerable to excessive policing and punitive surveillance. “All of these things are very interlinked,” she says from her Harlem apartment on a Tuesday afternoon Zoom call, “and impacted the way that my male cousins especially were handled—literally, physically handled—in public spaces.” This phenomenon is what Saidiya Hartman calls the “afterlife of slavery.” And it’s exactly what Fleetwood remembers seeing her cousins experience.

Though, unlike some of her family members, Fleetwood recalls feeling privileged and praised as a top student who would eventually spend her time flying home from studies at Stanford to visit Lebanon Correctional Institution. While she says she experienced “coming of age through carcerality,” there was always a tension between her orbit and that of her loved ones who were incarcerated; a juxtaposition made most tangible when, three weeks after graduating college, she found herself in the courthouse watching her cousin Allen—at the time only 18 years old—receive a life sentence.

The concept behind Fleetwood’s project “Marking Time” was born when she hung photographs of her cousins in Ohio prisons on the walls of her Harlem apartment in 2010. “In talking to those pictures, I was trying to bring [my cousins] to life,” Fleetwood says. “I realized by not acknowledging their presence so directly, I was actually reproducing the logic of the carceral state.” Her personal practice became a contemplative act—one that reflected on how mainstream media has long isolated and sensationalized “criminals” and made them out to seem unworthy of loved ones.

She then presented a series of visitation photographs accompanied by family stories, with no real agenda besides bringing her family into spaces outside of prison. Fleetwood recounts a time when, after her presentation, an attendee explained how he was taken aback: “He said, ‘I don't mean this to sound as bad as it will sound, but I never thought about people in prison having people who love them.’” Demonstrating the existence of love within carceral parameters was somehow radical, and mutually exclusive. Fleetwood began to blur those lines.

James “Yaya” Hough. Untitled Works, 2008-2016. Paper, ink, pencil, watercolor.

Courtesy of Xavier Hadley

In the last decade, Fleetwood’s project has evolved to become considerably larger than the photographs hanging on the walls of her apartment. “‘Marking Time’ really grew out of seeing what happened to my cousins and the people in my community—and then that became a way of connecting nationally with this larger movement,” she says. With time and more presentations, Fleetwood says connecting with more artists who were either incarcerated or focused on reform and abolition came naturally through public engagement. And, eventually, she would write a book and curate a physical exhibition of the same name.

The project led to a connection with people all over the United States across a variety of mediums. From Americana miniatures made by her cousin Allen’s colleague to the innovation of turning trash into elaborate sculptures, she became more exposed to and impressed by the creativity of those who were building such beautiful work with little resources and under extreme stress. In addition to the sheer talent demonstrated by these artists, Fleetwood discovered that art as it intersects with incarceration transcends an accepted segregation inside correctional facilities. “These multiethnic and racial alliances via art have built a sanctioned space where people come together against carceral structures,” she says. “It gives art this reverence and currency that other parts of prison life don’t have.”

Sable Elyse Smith. Landscape V, 2020. Neon.

Courtesy of Xavier Hadley.

With insight from her community, Fleetwood also learned how making art inside prisons and jails uniquely rejects the ways art has been monetized on the outside by established art circles and elite collectors. Even upon release, some artists told Fleetwood it took them time to adjust to what creating art could look like outside of prison. The art they made inside rejected these exclusive categories and encouraged fellow incarcerated people to be the largest collectors of their art.

In bringing her exhibition home, Fleetwood is promoting what she calls “ecologies of abolition,” or, the intersectional ways we can activate against incarceration. And for Fleetwood, that doesn’t stop with art. She spends her time present at parole hearings, writing letters on behalf of incarcerated individuals’s release, and, perhaps most importantly, consistently committing herself to a community both inside and outside carceral walls who can re-envision a world without cages.