In Art, Philosophy on
April 10, 2017

Out of Angola: Jackie Sumell

 Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
~Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

It all started with a simple question: “What kind of house does a man who has lived in a six-foot-by-nine-foot-cell for over thirty years dream of?”

This is the question art activist Jackie Sumell asked Herman Wallace in her first letter to the Louisiana State Penitentiary inmate in 2003. Little did Herman and Jackie know that simple question would develop into an international art project, a book, and a documentary each focused on opening  doors by creating conversations about the issues with isolation, interrupting the status quo, and pushing humankind in the direction of compassion, kindness, and prison abolition.

On a less broad, and more close to home level, building Herman’s house was a transformative experience for both Jackie Sumell and Herman Wallace.  Wallace stated:

[This project] helps me to maintain what little sanity I have left, to maintain my humanity and dignity. It’s probably the best move that I’ve ever made in my life. ~Herman Wallace

Show Me The Numbers!

Numbers can be beautiful. They can be a means of communication; a way of creating a common language—the language of the universe—as physicists are wont to say. But numbers are also emotionless; they can be viewed as sterile and dehumanizing when they reference human beings. Indeed, most believe it is degrading to be seen as just a number. Those running prisons understand this psychology, and that is why when an inmate arrives, their name and human identity is removed and replaced by a number. In 1971 after being convicted of robbery, Herman Wallace entered the gates at Angola and became 76759. One year later, he would be wrongfully convicted of murder and spent 41 years in solitary confinement.

Jackie Sumell helped Brooklyn Library visitors to understand and experience the psychological impact of being viewed as a number and forcibly isolated from society and human interaction through her exhibit #76759: Featuring the House that Herman Built. She gave Democracy Now a tour of the exhibit here:

6’x9’:

These are the dimensions of a solitary confinement cell. These are also the dimensions of the garden beds at Solitary Gardens. As described by its website:

Solitary Gardens is at the intersection of public art, alternative land-use and social sculpture. The project imagined by artist jackie sumell, will utilize garden beds designed after six-by-nine-foot American solitary cells as a physical platform for collaboration, education, and commiseration to facilitate unexpected exchanges between persons subjected to solitary confinement and volunteer communities on the “outside.” The six-by-nine-foot beds are “gardened” by prisoners, known as Solitary Gardeners, through written exchanges with volunteers. The Solitary Garden’s beds become the classroom for prison abolition curriculum as well as portraits of those buried in a system designed exclusively to punish.

Solitary Gardens’ ecological and social footprint will counterbalance that of the prison complex. As the gardens grow, the cells will be overcome by plant life, demonstrating that no matter what harm we humans impose on ourselves and the planet, nature, like human hope, love, and the imagination, will always win in the end.

You can hear the artist herself discuss the project more extensively here:

It was inspiring to watch and listen to her discuss elements of the project with me and a group of people gathered at Berkeley Art Museum last month. She told the story of  Angola, sharing that the prison itself was built on what was once a plantation and the home to many slaves who performed the backbreaking forced labor to keep that plantation alive.

The plants in the solitary gardens honor that heritage and speak to that history by planting plants like tobacco and cotton as symbols of slavery.

The Angola 3:

3 is another important number associated with Herman Wallace.  This is because he was one of The Angola Three prison inmates – Robert Hillary King, and Albert Woodfox were the other two – who were put in solitary confinement in Louisiana State Penitentiary, a.k.a. Angola Prison, in April 1972 after the killing of a prison guard.  All three of them maintained their innocence, and all three would eventually be freed. You can listen to an Amnesty International podcast featuring Albert Woodfox here.

3 is also significant because there is a 3 word phrase in the English language: “I love you” that, Jackie Sumell would say is the solution to wrongful convictions and the inhumane conditions of solitary confinement.

In a lecture she gave at the Berkeley Art Museum last month, she made these powerful statements about love: “empathy is the answer” and “when we love, we evolve.”

Through her work with Herman’s House and The Solitary Gardens, Sumell is trying to help humanity develop empathy and evolve beyond the limbic fight or flight, hate and fear mental state that leads us to isolate those we fear from those we love and creates a system founded on “othering” to a system that is inclusive and communal. But, as Sumell closed her remarks, she reminded the audience that “there is so much more work for love to do.”

Bibliography and Further Reading:

Man’s Search for Meaning | Viktor Frankl

Hermans’s House | Project Website

Solitary Gardens | Project Website

Amnesty International Podcast | Albert Woodfox

Arts + Design Mondays | Art, Activism, and Freedom in the American Carceral State, with jackie sumell

Frontline | What Does Solitary Confinement Do To Your Mind?

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