Ricardo Miranda Zúñiga

Structural Patterns

Reflections on Art, Technology and Society

Robert King Wilkerson and Rigo 23 at the New Museum

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Wilkerson and Rigo 23 at New Museum
A Portuguese voice, a Louisianan voice and a Brit voice

This afternoon I attended a free discussion at the New Museum that was part of Creative Time’s “Hey Hey Glossolalia: Exhibiting the Voice,” a series of free events throughout the month of May. The discussion was between Robert King Wilkerson, former Black Panther who spent 29 years in solitary confinement in the Louisiana State Prison aka Angola Prison, artist and activist Rigo 23 and Creative Time curator Mark Beasley.  (Rigo 23 and Wilkerson have been working together for the past 7 years, apparently Rigo 23 is working on a documentary about Wilkerson.)

Robert King Wilkerson is the only member of the Angola 3 that has been liberated from prison. The other two Panther inmates, Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace remain in solitary confinement, now 34 years, the longest that any human being has spent in closed-cell restriction that is 23 hours alone in a 6-foot-by-9-foot concrete box year after year after year.

The witness of a prison slaying that sent Wilkerson to a life-time jail sentence recanted his story which eventually lead to Wilkerson’s freedom as long as he wouldn’t sue for wrongful conviction. Now Wilkerson travels and speaks and people listen in amazement to a victim of a system that kept him in solitary confinement for 29 years and a total of 31 years in jail. If one stops to consider the psychological implications of spending half a lifetime alone in a small cell 23 hours of each day, it’s difficult to imagine how sanity may be retained.

Robert King Wilkerson is not only lucid, he’s a powerful speaker who triggers the imagination and hope. When asked how he kept his sanity, Wilkerson states that it was his innocence, that although he was in prison, he wasn’t going to allow prison get in him, his love to think, to dream, dream as a form of talking to himself. He also had lots of nightmares, but the dreams out-shined the nightmares.

In closed-cell restriction (ccr), prisoners are not allowed to speak, so talking to oneself in the cell and out loud to other prisoners during the one hour time out of the cell became a method of contestation and protest. “We weren’t going to let anyone from keep us from talking, no matter how many times they’d write us up. We’d tell them to write us up…” In talking about the power of voice, Wilkerson quotes his fellow Panther inmate Herman Wallace – “The deeper they bury me, the louder my voice becomes.”

When asked about the purpose of art and activism, Wilkerson states “thay you can use your hand, you can use your talent… to tell a story, a work of art can encompass a great deal.” His point being that art may be a very powerful means for change in our society. However when Rigo 23 was asked about his practice as an artist and activist, he stated that it’s “hard to not be overcome with a sense of futility, get overwhelmed with distractions and that he has left art to try to get something undone and from Robert to learn how to deal.” Rigo 23’s “One Tree” mural in San Francisco that points to a single tree next to the highway South of Market is amongst one of my favorite public works, so hopefully he’ll return to art in some way. Although when the curator who moderated the panel isn’t familiar with Act Up’s long time, powerful logo – the pink triangle over the phrase “Silence = Death”, one can’t help but question the point of activism in today’s Art World.

Documentary filmmaker, Jimmy O’Halligan is working on a film about the Angola 3; preview is available on youtube.

Written by ricardo

May 3rd, 2008 at 7:20 pm