by Arielle Emmett
Tameca Cole, a native of Birmingham, Alabama, spent 26 years at Julia Tutwiler Women’s Prison (Wetumpka, AL) for a drug deal gone bad. She was 21 years old at the time and won’t disclose further details except to say that someone was killed. Today, at age 51, she’s an artist whose work has been exhibited throughout the country and, most notably, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art PS1. Cole started doing art as a protest against the insults and reprimands of a corrections officer. Tired and angry at the way she was treated, she went back to her cell and started to make collages. One of them ended up at Die Jim Crow Records, a New York recording studio for incarcerated artists. Fury Young, the founder of the recording studio, sold Cole’s artwork, calling it a “genius piece.”
Today Cole’s work has appeared at University of Alabama Birmingham’s Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts AEIVA), South Arts, an Atlanta, GA-based nonprofit regional arts organization, the Shomberg Center for Research in Black Culture (New York), the Barnard Center for Research on Women (Barnard College, New York), and The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (Cincinnati) among many other galleries and museums. She became famous for one of her first mixed-media collages of 2016, “Locked in a Dark Calm,” which became a featured work in the 2020 Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) PS1 exhibition entitled “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” The show went national, exhibiting the work of 44 incarcerated artists. “Marking Time” was highlighted in The New York Times .
The curator of that exhibition, Dr. Nicole Fleetwood, a Rutgers University Professor of American Studies and Art History, now at NYU,* wrote a book by the same title. In an interview in Wmagazine, Fleetwood described her own family’s experiences with community red lining and excessive policing of young black male cousins in her small Ohio steel town. “’Marking Time’ is a lot of things,” she said. “It’s about contemporary art, it’s about making work under oppression, and it’s about collectively imagining another type of society.”
Art as Abolition
For Tameca Cole, like Fleetwood, art has become an Abolitionist instrument, a symbol of internal struggles against years of confinement and personal regret. Her collages depict fragmented faces and enormous seeing eyes, black minstrels wearing death masks and playing banjos, and ghostly silhouettes hanging above courthouses. Much of her work recognizes historical tropes — how white Americans have perceived blacks as culpable, inferior, too willing to please.
“In my mind I never looked at myself as a visual artist…I thought of myself as a writer, that’s what I wanted to do,” Cole told me. As a child, she loved to read and had done well in high school. But she was sidelined, drinking, getting involved in drugs as her mother did. Cole entered the Alabama prison system twice.
Life changed the second time around when she began writing poetry in a 2002 class led by Kyes Stevens, Director of the Alabama Prison Arts & Education project. At the time, the arts project wasn’t formal. “But I looked down the hall, saw Kyes, saw that she had a class and she just smiled. Once I started dreaming again and writing I knew what I was going to do.”
Cole recalled that Stevens immediately recognized in her first poem substance that marked her as an artist. “Kyes literally saved my life,” Cole said. Her teaching was somehow different from what Cole had experienced before. “It was about completely seeing us as human beings, the way Kyes encouraged [us] to grow. Even if you wanted to become a creative artist, she [saw] that you had to grow as a human being.”
With Stevens’ encouragement, Tameca Cole began writing like a house of fire. Her poetry and lyrics helped raise money for Die Jim Crow Records, the studio devoted to publishing the music of incarcerated artists. Cole’s mixed-media artwork followed. After her prison release, she worked variously as a dishwasher, construction equipment operator, cabinet marker and electrician (skills she learned in trade school programs). After about two and half years, Cole’s artwork earned Nicole Fleetwood’s interest. Her “Locked in a Dark Calm” found its home in the “Marking Time” exhibition and book, and suddenly Cole’s work was featured in The New York Times.
“I think the world of Tameca Cole,” Kyes Stevens said. However, she argues that no one “fixed” or “saved” Cole or anyone else during Tutwiler classes. “A lot of articles written by people affected by incarceration miss the boat,” Stevens explained. “Our agenda is learning and creating in our classes; the agenda isn’t changing someone ‘s life. It’s arrogant to think that a teacher can be responsible for changing [a] life. There is a lot of rhetoric in education and arts programs about that, but we’re always very adamant about just making the space and providing [an environment] for people to learn.”
Cole’s haunting artworks are a testament to spiritual release, perception, damning social comment. There is something dark, horrid and funny in her imagery and tone. Cole is among dozens of other artists visualizing mass incarceration as a form of suffering, even torture that more than 2.4 million Americans know intimately. Cole wants to be more than a visual critic. “I live in my head constantly,” she said. “It’s crowded with different kinds of ideas. Personally, I don’t have a limitation and I’m trying to move away from [strictly carceral] themes.
“I want to be known as an artist, not a ‘prison artist.'” #
*Fleetwood is now the James Weldon Johnson Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication in the Steinhardt School at New York University.