Rutgers Academic Examines Art-Making as Strategy for Survival

Rutgers Academic Examines Art-Making as Strategy for Survival

Prisoners and other under-represented populations are Nicole Fleetwood’s focus

Nicole Fleetwood
If a common thread weaves through Nicole Fleetwood’s work, it would be how art-making is a strategy for survival among marginalized groups.

Fresh off winning a significant award for her previous book, Troubling Vision, a look at how black iconic figures such as Michael Jackson come to represent black culture in the eyes of the public, the associate professor in Rutgers' Department of American Studies, School of Arts and Sciences, is turning to the artistic practices of individuals serving time in the nation’s prisons.

“Given the racial breakdown of the prison population, a lot of the artists I’m considering are black, but the study does not focus exclusively on black artists in prison,” says Fleetwood, who has examined a range of genres as well as the collaborations between prison populations and artists outside the prison walls.

For her research, she pores over hundreds of works produced behind bars – photographs, paintings, beautifully decorated envelopes, greeting cards, elaborate murals – to tease apart the messages they send.

Several of Fleetwood's relatives have done time over the decades. She is  incorporating her family’s story into her research as she interviews artists and arts administrators who are collaborating with prisoners, as well as collectors who amass this ultimate form of outsider art.

It’s a body of work little known outside the confines of prisons, and one rarely if ever examined by scholars. But its importance, she says, lies in the fact that inmate art challenges researchers to think about how prisoners make use of their time, and how they use the visual media to stay connected with families and loved ones on the outside.

“There is a disjuncture between the dominant public perception of the incarcerated – who have people grieving for them, loving them – and the lack of value we place on prisoners,” says the academic, who grew up in a blue-collar community in southwest Ohio and now lives in Harlem.

Several of her relatives have done time over the decades. Fleetwood is incorporating her family’s story into her book research even as she interviews artists and arts administrators who are collaborating with prisoners, as well as collectors who amass this ultimate form of outsider art.

“Within our national public culture, the vision of prisoners comes largely through television and other mass media,” Fleetwood says. “People absorb this idea that prison life has almost a kind of lawlessness about it, that prisoners don’t deserve access to civil society, and that they deserve any cruel conditions they encounter.”

Fleetwood’s research emphasizes prisoners’ self-representation and the use of art to counter what she describes as this widespread dehumanization of prisoners on the part of society at large.

The academic, who has been at Rutgers since 2005 and is currently on sabbatical, says race is a constant when talking about the American system of incarceration.

“It’s not about some people being more prone to crime or not being able to be good citizens,” Fleetwood says. “These are really political, economic and racial matters. My work is definitely influenced by a growing body of scholarship making us think more carefully about mass incarceration, not to take for granted that prison is an inevitable pathway for certain groups of people with limited access to resources.”

This urge to represent under-represented populations has long propelled her, says Fleetwood, who spent the last 18 months on tour for Troubling Vision.

Such diverse names as Janet Jackson, Lil’ Kim and Zora Neale Hurston make appearances in that book, which examines how blackness becomes visually knowable through performance and cultural practices. Fleetwood devotes a chapter to Pittsburgh photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris, who captured scenes of the city’s Hill District during the early and mid-20th century.

Harris’s work – some 80,000 images taken over the span of his professional life – focuses not on the iconic Jesse Owens or the Martin Luther Kings, but rather on what Fleetwood calls the “seemingly ordinary moments and happenings in the lives of black Pittsburghers.” The book also examines such diverse topics as the plays of Dael Orlandersmith and Hurston, the female black body, the emergence of hip-hop fashion and the influence of clothing on black masculinity.

Troubling Vision received the 2012 Lora Romero First Book Publication Prize from the American Studies Association.  

The association called the work “a path-breaking book that examines the problem of seeing blackness – the simultaneous hyper-visibility and invisibility of African Americans – in U.S. visual cultures in the last half century … Troubling Vision is a beautifully written, original and important addition to the field of American studies.”

The first person on her mother’s side to graduate from college, Fleetwood received her Ph.D. in modern thought and literature from Stanford University and her bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Miami University of Ohio.

At Rutgers' School of Arts and Sciences in New Brunswick, she leads classes in the areas of visual culture, technology studies, gender theory and race and representation. In addition to teaching undergraduates in the American Studies Department she is also on the graduate faculty for Women and Gender Studies.

This coming academic year Fleetwood is taking on yet another role: director of the Institute for Research on Women, where she served as a fellow from 2005 to 2006.

The institute advances interdisciplinary scholarship on gender, sexuality and women. During her three-year tenure, Fleetwood hopes to expand the institute’s public programming and core constituency across the Rutgers campuses. Her proposed themes include the influence of feminism on visual studies and art history, and the transformations of family structure and labor in the 21st century.