In 2010, Kalief Browder was arrested for a robbery he did not commit. The seventeen-year-old teenager was subsequently imprisoned without trial for over three years at the Robert N. Davoren Center on Rikers Island, a facility known for its culture of violence. During this period, Browder was subject to torturously long segments in solitary confinement—over 700 days in total—as well as physical and mental abuse by prison guards and inmates. Tragically, the severe trauma caused lasting depression that resulted in his suicide in 2015, approximately two years after his release. Although the city eventually settled a civil lawsuit with his family in 2019, no one was held accountable for having incarcerated Browder for three years with neither trial nor proof.
Artist Coby Kennedy felt compelled to bring this injustice to light, by creating an eight-by-ten-by-six-feet sculpture that replicates the exact dimensions of a solitary confinement cell. Framed by steel, the glass surfaces are etched with line renderings of the bed, barred window, and toilet that sparsely furnish the inhumane settings. Alongside these diagrams are texts that draw parallels between the United States’ carceral centers and Guantanamo Bay, and also critique the gross abuses of civil liberties when innocent men and women are abducted for untried crimes. Viewed from the exterior and lit from below, the sculpture also pays tribute to the overwhelming endurance that Browder, alongside his family members, struggled to maintain.
On the motivation behind his work, Kennedy notes, “I was incredibly moved by the story of Kalief Browder, because what he experienced has been my own personal fear since I was a child: the idea that I could be abducted by a government institution and held without proper cause. Although I can only imagine what he actually experienced, I could viscerally feel the determination and pure strength of will that it took to come out on the other side of that kind of imprisonment and constant abuse. It is my hope that, when viewers happen upon this sculpture, they can empathically feel the weight of being put into a box and having it become your life for a long, unknowable future. Hopefully, they can transcend the watered-down words used in mass media to describe the incarceration process, and instead start to feel the reality of the literal torture that continues daily in the prisons of America.”
In conjunction with the installation’s presentation, artist-led civic engagement organization For Freedoms and Pioneer Works will present a four-part town hall series to create a forum of discussion around those same injustices. The programs will center on conversations between legal scholars, activists, and artists; and thematically follow the four new freedoms created by For Freedoms’ 2020 Awakening campaign and their work beyond: Listening, Awakening, Healing, and Justice. Just as Kennedy’s installation communicates a fraction of the physical, emotional, and psychological torment of solitary confinement, the series aims to provide a creatively-driven introduction to the myriad impacts of mass incarceration, and to inspire participants to envision a transformed world without prisons.
About the Artist
Coby Kennedy (b. 1977; lives and works in New York) uses the communication tools of the advertising and entertainment industry to create paintings, videos and sculptures that hint at unspoken truths, the modern culture of veiled intent, and the questions of subjective realities. A graduate of Columbia University’s Fine Art MFA and Pratt Institute’s Industrial Design BA programs, the artist and industrial conceptual designer has completed residencies at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture (2011), Red Bull Arts Detroit (2016), and Anderson Ranch Arts Center (2018). Kennedy is the recipient of the Civil Society Institute Fellowship and One World Award, and has exhibited work domestically and internationally, in Japan, South Africa, and Italy.
About For Freedoms
For Freedoms is an artist-led organization that models and increases creative civic engagement, discourse and direct action. We work with artists and organizations to center the voices of artists in public discourse, expand what participation in a democracy looks like, and reshape conversations about politics.
About Negative Space
The production management company Negative Space was conceived in response to the pandemic’s dramatic effects on the ways we interact and a growing need for more public art. Working in the space behind the scenes, Negative Space helps artists and organizations who are socially-engaged to produce contemporary public artworks that strive to advance social justice. Negative Space offers project management with principles of inclusivity, empathy, transparency and accessibility, and has worked with clients like Hank Willis Thomas, Radical Media, Incarceration Nations Network, The Brave House, and now Pioneer Works.
This exhibition is organized by Sam Giarratani of Negative Space, and is supported in part by the Art for Justice Fund, the ForGood Fund, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.