Reception: Friday, May 4, 6–10 p.m. | Artist talk with Dasan Ahanu: Thursday, May 10, 7 p.m.
Artspace, Raleigh

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the adjacent Legacy Museum: From Slavery to Mass Incarceration both recently opened in Montgomery, Alabama. The former is a sacred open-air pavilion of pillars bearing the names of lynching victims; the latter is a technology-rich space of documentary and witness in which you walk past cells or sit at a visitation window to hear holograms of prisoners tell you their stories.

Artfor(us), Sherrill Roland’s solo show running at Artspace through May 12, is structured similarly to the Legacy Museum but in the form of collages that episodically narrate his ten-month incarceration in Washington, D.C., in 2013 and 2014, after which he was released and exonerated.

Much more interactive than holograms, Roland’s highly personal and densely overwritten collages, which were created following his incarceration, are made from the kinds of materials that were accessible to him in jail, including toilet paper and legal paper, Sharpie markers and Kool-Aid powder, and the greeting cards, letters, and monthly issues of Artforum International that his family sent to him.

The nine collages are accompanied by three compilations of excerpts from Roland’s letters from prison, handwritten on Mylar that he disguised as legal pads by dyeing it with Top Ramen chicken seasoning. These texts are straightforward accounts of his prison experiences:

“I remember being stripped naked in front of everybody. Officers, inmates, and all. They ask me to lift, spread, and squat. Dave Chappelle wasn’t playing. I can laugh about it now but never have I ever felt so low and less than.”

Roland first drew attention to his experience of wrongful incarcerationhe doesn’t discuss the nature of the chargeswith The Jumpsuit Project. He wore an orange prison jumpsuit while finishing his MFA at UNC-Greensboro, which he’d been plucked from for his prison term, and he continues to use the garment to tell stories and provoke conversations at places like the Oakland Book Festival and the Studio Museum in Harlem. Roland understands the power of speaking this way to a public that remains relatively ignorant about the racial inequity of the American prison system and its historical connection to slavery. He pushes that story further in this body of work.

The legal-pad narrations set up the collages, which layer images with different kinds of texts on paper panels handmade from pulped toilet paper and Artforum issues. Each collage is mounted on a section of black steel screen, which evokes prison fencing. In the texts, biblical passages are written in black, frank quotes and stories about survival skills are in blue, and inspirational quotes are in red. Each collage also includes larger imagery ranging from parts of Artforum covers and cartoonish illustrations to a newspaper obituary of Roland’s grandmother, who passed away while he was in prison.

It’s a lot to process and combine, but the collages add up to a nuanced statement of the many abilities and coping mechanisms required to survive both incarceration and the difficult return to a changed life afterward.

There’s the greeting-card reassurance that people who care are waiting outside. There’s the wisdom of scripture, that a higher power might exceed even the authoritarian system of the prison. There’s the ambition of a young artist whose education has been interrupted, trying to stay connected to an art world that couldn’t seem more far away.

The exhibit embodies the difficulty of handling all of this at once. Roland’s collages draw you very close to read the small handwriting on them. Inches away, they’re like windows through the steel fencing, as if they allow him to see through the walls of imprisonment. But when you step back, the collages suddenly look like slapped-up, fragile scraps, and you feel how desperate and tenuous it is.

Materially and psychologically, Roland’s work shows the overarching value of resourcefulness. In artfor(us), prisoner and artist are two different uniforms that a survivor wears to work through a system that will process him whether he fights it or not. If he survives the system and gets outside of itat least enough to act with some agencythen he can fight it in the form of work like this. It’s the lesson that every witness needs to learn.