Deborah McDuff’s exhibition, “Impact on Innocence: Mass Incarceration,” on show from February 1 through 22 at the Augusta Savage Gallery at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, couldn’t be more timely or urgent.
Using charcoal on canvas, McDuff’s larger than life portraits of women, children and men of color who experience the trauma of prison reveal the pain of incarceration experienced not only by those who are imprisoned but by their loved ones, especially children. Theirs are the faces of loss, abandonment and a burdened life that leave their mark on viewers.
“Children do not choose their parents,” the California artist said. “Why should they endure a life sentence too?”
McDuff, who earned an MFA in Visual Arts from Lesley University College of Art and Design, clearly feels passionately about the travesties of imprisonment, including the use of virtually unpaid labor and the profiteering of private prisons. Her passion derives from talking with children and families whose voices are not heard. “They are the victims of mass incarceration,” she said. Her portrayal of them in black and white is intentional, “because it’s a black/white issue. There’s no middle ground,” said the black artist. “No one listens to the children.”
Among the compelling portraits in the exhibition is “Grandmother and Child” in which the loving face of an elder comforts her visibly sad grandchild, while another “Mother” looks askance, one eye seeming to be visually impaired or perhaps unable to bear a goodbye.
“Abandonment” shares the wide-eyed shock and despair of a child, an adult hand waving him away. “Cambodian Deportation” captures the fear, anger and sadness in a young man’s face. A set of smaller portraits in one canvas show several children waving goodbye or witnessing a departure.
A central piece in the exhibition is a record player mounted on a square box, the four sides of which show the number of people incarcerated in 2013 by state. The numbers, reaching more than 200,000 in Texas and California, appear on state license plates in recognition of the prison labor that produces car license plates. Titled “The Arm of Justice Hits the Wrong Groove,” the record on the player offers a poem written by McDuff, a poet as well as an artist. One line reads, “Devastation repeats itself like an overplayed song.”
McDuff often uses natural and found objects to reflect on American life and society, adding poetry when appropriate. Her goal, she said, is to enable viewers to confront human suffering or social injustice in an aesthetically moving way. “I want to use my intellect and my creative ability to make people more aware of issues like mass incarceration.”