IN THE CATEGORY OF CRITICISM, Nicole R. Fleetwood won the National Book Critics Circle Award for “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” The Book Critics Circle (NBCC) Awards were celebrated during a virtual program on March 26. J. Howard Rosier, chair of the Criticism committee, announced Fleetwood’s award.
“Fleetwood is being honored for her profoundly revisionist work which identifies the conditions under which incarcerated persons create art while taxonomizing its making,” Rosier said.
The virtual National Book Critics Circle Award ceremony is engaging throughout and features Nicole Fleetwood doing a brief reading at 34:28-36:03 and receiving the Criticism award at 2:11:52. | Video by NBCC
“Fleetwood is the author of two previous books and, in this one, she reshuffles both contemporary debates on art history and institutional reform. Marking Time’s theory of carceral aesthetics struck the committee as brilliant and durable in its ability to offer insight into situations where art makers are held by the state against their will. It is a blistering critique of the penal system and ultimately a testament to human flourishing in spite of it. Thoughtful and ambitious, Fleetwood never loses sight of visibility and humanization as her goals.”
Marking Time “is a blistering critique of the penal system and ultimately a testament to human flourishing in spite of it. Thoughtful and ambitious, Fleetwood never loses sight of visibility and humanization as her goals.”
— J. Howard Rosier, NBCC
Since the 1970s, incarceration has increased exponentially. Today, more than two million people are imprisoned in the United States. Blacks are overrepresented behind bars with Black men accounting for 34 percent of the male prison population and Black women composing 18 percent of incarcerated women. The number of people sentenced to life in prison has quadrupled since 1984. Nearly half the people incarcerated for life are Black.
Fleetwood focuses on the artists among the incarcerated. She explores their work and considers the dynamics of prison life and its affects on incarcerated artists, their art, their ability to make art, and their families, including her own. It’s a book about contemporary art, prison culture, public policy, economic and racial injustice, political activism, and the freedom that comes from expression.
“Throughout this book, I highlight the compulsion to make, to create, and to produce meaning under brutal and austere circumstances in the larger context of the carceral state,” Fleetwood wrote in the introduction to “Marking Time.”
“There are lessons here, developed by the punished and imprisoned, about how to create, forge relations, and to embody and represent one’s life under unimaginable conditions. From these lessons we learn about a society that relies on punitive confinement as a solution to myriad social, economic, political, ecological, and health crises. Prisons—indefinite detention, parole, concentration camps—exist inasmuch as we allow them to. ”
A professor of American studies and art history at Rutgers University, Fleetwood said she was speechless when she won. “I didn’t expect to win this at all,” she said. Fleetwood worked on “Marking Time” for more than 10 years. In addition to the book, the project included a major exhibition at MoMA PS1, a related traveling show focused photography with the Aperture Foundation, and many public conversations. When Fleetwood embarked on “Marking Time,” her son was 5. She received the award on his birthday. He was turning 16, she said.
An ongoing work by Mark Loughney illustrates the cover of “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” by Nicole R. Fleetwood (Harvard University Press, 352 pages). Composed of more than 500 individual graphite on paper portraits, “Pyrrhic Defeat: A Visual Study of Mass Incarceration” (2014-present) features people housed with Loughney in a Pennsylvania prison. Fleetwood notes that “the work visualizes the collective toll of mass incarceration” and “continues to grow through his use of penal time.”
THE NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE “honors outstanding writing and fosters a national conversation about reading, criticism, and literature.” Each year, NBCC gives awards for literature published in the United States in five categories—autobiography, biography, criticism, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. The recognition is the only national literary award selected by book critics.
Earlier this year, on Jan. 24, the finalists were announced for books published in 2020. Fleetwood bested four other finalists in the Criticism category: Vivian Gornick’s “Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux); “Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country” (Feminist Press) by Cristina Rivera Garza; “Stranger Faces” (Transit) by Namwali Serpell; and Wendy A. Woloson’s “Crap: A History of Cheap Stuff in America” (University of Chicago Press).
“In a year when there was so much in the world to quarrel with the committee and I were in awe of the abundance of trenchant and unconventional approaches in the category,” Rosier said.
“Marking Time” has been widely lauded. The volume was highlighted in Culture Type’s Year in Black Art 2020. The volume was a Smithsonian Book of the Year, New York Times Best Art Book of the Year, Art Newspaper Book of the Year, and New York Review of Books “Best of 2020” Selection. Fleetwood also won two awards for the book from the College Art Association.
“Throughout this book, I highlight the compulsion to make, to create, and to produce meaning under brutal and austere circumstances in the larger context of the carceral state.” — Nicole R. Fleetwood
Accepting the National Book Critics Circle Award, Fleetwood thanked Rosier for “honoring all the artists and activists and family members who are impacted by the carceral state, the 100 million people who have been in prison or love someone who’s in prison.” She thanked Black feminist scholars, activists, and abolitionists.
“I wouldn’t also be here if it wasn’t for my family… the Fleetwoods, my cousins Allen, De’Andre, and Eric, who all spent time in prison as young people and who trusted me with sharing their experience and their story. And my Aunt Sharon whose like my role model, my cousin Cassandra who is super close to me, and seeing what they did to support my cousin Allen when he was in prison actually inspired me to do this project,” Fleetwood said.
“Most importantly is all the artists, formerly and currently incarcerated people, some who are suffering from COVID, right now, who are still in prison, who are in solitary confinement. Some who didn’t survive. Ronnie Goodman who passed away in August 2020 on the streets of San Francisco. Billy Sell who didn’t survive a hunger strike. To all the artists who shared their suffering their stories their art their visions of transformative justice, healing, and love. And finally to a world without human caging and captivity. To freedom and recognition. To beloved community. Thank you very much.” CT
FIND MORE about Nicole Fleetwood and her Marking Time project on her website
WATCH MORE The virtual National Book Critics Circle Award ceremony is engaging throughout and features the Criticism category and Nicole Fleetwood (she does a brief reading at 34:28-36:03 and receives the award at 2:11:52)
In addition to “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” Nicole R. Fleetwood authored “Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness” and “On Racial Icons: Blackness and the Public Imagination.” She has contributed to exhibition catalogs, including “Gordon Parks: The Atmosphere of Crime, 1957,” “Walls Turned Sideways: Artists Confront the Justice System,” “Mickalene Thomas: I Can’t See You Without Me,” and “Taryn Simon: The Innocents” (forthcoming in September 2021). Focusing on photography, Fleetwood also organized the Prison Nation edition of Aperture magazine (Spring 2018) and the coinciding exhibition.
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