Barring Freedom

Hank Willis Thomas, If the Leader Only Knew, 2014
Hank Willis Thomas, If the Leader Only Knew, 2014 © Hank Willis Thomas. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Barring Freedom creatively engages and educates multiple publics about issues of prisons, policing, and justice through an innovative traveling exhibition of contemporary art, a participatory public art project, and online events and programming around the theme of Visualizing Abolition.

At the center of the arts-based initiative, organized by UC Santa Cruz Institute of the Arts and Sciences (IAS) with San José Museum of Art and in collaboration with Mary Porter Sesnon Art Gallery, is a multi-sited group exhibition of contemporary art. Curated by Dr. Rachel Nelson, Director, Institute of the Arts and Sciences and Alexandra Moore, IAS Curatorial Fellow, and featuring works by some of the most influential contemporary artists in the United States, the exhibition aims to challenge the dominant ways people see and understand the complex nexus of policing, surveillance, detention, and imprisonment that makes up the nation’s prison industrial complex. With more than two million incarcerated people, a majority of them black or brown, virtually all of them from poor communities, the prison industrial complex reveals a troubled vision at the heart of the United States. Barring Freedom considers the strategies artists use to reveal this unjust worldview as well as the social problems it serves to obscure. More information about the exhibition.

To accompany the exhibition, Visualizing Abolition, a series of online events planned in collaboration with Gina Dent, associate professor, feminist studies, brings together artists, activists, scholars, and others united by their commitment to envisioning alternatives to ongoing injustices. Visualizing Abolition launches on October 20, 2020, with a conversation between Angela Y. Davis and Gina Dent. The series continues regularly until May 18, 2021. Event information and registration links. is a digital extension of the Barring Freedom exhibition, designed to deepen student and public engagement with the themes raised in the exhibition. was conceived by co-curators Dr. Rachel Nelson and Alexandra Moore and developed by Alexandra Moore, Abram Stern and Aaron Samuel Mulenga for UC Santa Cruz Institute of the Arts and Sciences, the website is the product of the IAS education fellowship program.

The motivation for Barring Freedom emerges from a deep history of scholarship and activism at UC Santa Cruz. Current and emeritus faculty at the university, including Angela Davis, Gina Dent, Craig Haney, Sharon Daniel, and Dee Hibbert-Jones, have for decades been powerful leaders in prison abolition and activism around solitary confinement and the death penalty. Barring Freedom seeks to build on that legacy and energize current research and activism.

While Barring Freedom was conceptualized before the current crises, first COVID-19, with its ongoing and unequal effects, and then the recent brutal onslaught of police killings of Black people in the United States have brought into sharp relief the horrific consequences of the structural racism in the nation. As the depths of the injustices come into focus, the teachings of Professor Davis serve as inspiration. Reflecting on mass incarceration and abolition, she cautions, “Dangerous limits have been placed on the very possibility of imagining alternatives.” It is with the urgency of the times that the exhibition underscores the importance of artists and creative practitioners in envisioning a world beyond the problems of policing and overflowing prisons that currently bar people from freedom in the United States.

Artists: American Artist; Sadie Barnette; Sanford Biggers; Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick; Sonya Clark; Sharon Daniel; Maria Gaspar, Ashley Hunt; Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman; Titus Kaphar and Reginald Dwayne Betts; Deana Lawson; Sherrill Roland; Dread Scott; jackie sumell; Hank Willis Thomas; Patrice Renee Washington; Prison Renaissance, Levester Williams. 

Barring Freedom and Visualizing Abolition is organized by UC Santa Cruz Institute of the Arts and Sciences in collaboration with San José Museum of Art and Mary Porter Sesnon Art Gallery.

The initiative has been generously funded by the Nion McEvoy Family Trust, the Ford Foundation, Future Justice Fund, Wanda Kownacki, Peter Coha, James L. Gunderson, Rowland and Pat Rebele, Porter College, UCSC Foundation, and annual donors to the Institute of the Arts and Sciences.

Campus partners include: Mary Porter Sesnon Art Gallery, The Humanities Institute, University Library, University Relations, Institute for Social Transformation, Eloise Pickard Smith Gallery, Porter College, the Center for Cultural Studies, and the Center for Creative Ecologies.

Community partners include: San José Museum of Art, McEvoy Foundation for the Arts, Jessica Silverman Gallery, and Indexical. 

PDF: Barring Freedom 

Friday, October 23, 2020 to Tuesday, June 1, 2021