INMATE INGENUITY: The Cell Solace Collection

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A Violence Transformed Exhibition


Containers made in U.S. Prisons

We are pleased to present this exhibition featuring more than twenty exquisitely crafted containers made by inmates in American prisons and jails over the second and third quarters of the twentieth century.
Inmate Ingenuity is a Violence Transformed exhibition continuing the decade long collaboration between the NCAAA and the Violence Transformed project. It is partially is supported by the Mayor’s Office for Arts and Culture, Josephine and Louise Crane Family Foundation and Violence Transformed.

Inmate Ingenuity presents a jewelry box, and many purses, hand and shoulder bags all completely made of folded woven cigarette cartons and paper. Surprising design sensitivities and remarkable artisan skills are evident in the sophisticated and well-crafted containers many of which eventually found their way to specialized markets.

The aggregation of these works make up the Cell Solace Collection. Others were gifted by the inmates to sweethearts, wives, family and friends on the outside. Many viewers, in addition to being awed by the beauty of the bags and boxes, will also recall the once universally familiar motifs on cigarette packaging, such as the familiar camel associated with that brand name, or the prancing lion and crown on Pall Mall boxes. Works on display evoke an era when smoking was widely accepted as a social norm, and before smoking was banned in US prisons.

At that time, cigarettes were prized commodities behind bars. The availability of cigarette containers and endless time, combined with the introduction of purse weaving as a craft into the prisons allowed inmates a new arena of creativity and a humanizing opportunity to connect to the world beyond the incarceration.

The Cell Solace Collection was assembled by Antonio N. Innis who grew up in Roxbury and spent his formative in Boston and Los Angeles pursuing an interest in music. His father, whose friend Terrence was incarcerated at New York’s Rikers Island, unintentionally planted the seed for the collection when he received two of Terrence’s purses: One for Inniss’ mother and the other for Terrence’s girlfriend. They fascinated young Inniss who shared his enthusiasm for them and eventually found his family and friends giving him new bags that they encountered. He thus became a collector and the bags and purses became his passion.

He increased his collecting activity during a period when he worked for Amtrak and traveled widely. Innis appreciated the discipline, hard work, creativity and inventiveness invested by inmates in producing the bags. He said that “sometimes beautiful things come out of the worst conditions.”

In the end, the bags and purses are evidence of the prisoner’s humanity and desire to retain relation-ships in the outside world. The bags and boxes constitute a specialized form of communication, of expression, that could quiet and calm the soul, thus the title “Cell Solace”.

Incarceration remains a major issue for black and brown communities all across America. It disrupts families, feeds social collapse, poverty and fragmented social relationships. Increasingly, it targets women girls as it always has men and boys.

Since the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, public policy has victimized and dehumanized black communities. A prime expression of the abusive and unjust legal system has been the oppressive operation of prisons and jails. The Cell Solace Collection evinces that despite jails and prisons, the flicker of love, family and hope was not extinguished

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