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The Pencil is a Key:drawings by Incarcerated Artists

The Pencil Is a Key: Drawings by Incarcerated Artists is an exhibition of more than 140 drawings by imprisoned artists from around the globe. Featuring works produced over a roughly two-hundred-year period, the exhibition presents powerful evidence of the persistence of human creativity in the most inhumane of circumstances. For each of the incarcerated artists represented in The Pencil Is a Key, the act of putting pencil to paper is a vehicle through which they proclaim their individuality and measure their humanity against systems of repression. Together, their drawings are containers of memories, records that bear witness, tools for survival, weapons in the fight for justice, and portals to a better future.

Organized chronologically, The Pencil Is a Key interprets the term “incarceration” broadly to mean any situation in which an individual is denied their freedom. This includes penal incarceration; imprisonment of combatants during wartime; systematic imprisonment by governments on the basis of political affiliation, gender, sexuality, race, or religion; as well as forced restriction of movement and involuntary imprisonment in psychiatric institutions. Throughout the exhibition, drawings by artists who were or currently are prisoners are presented alongside works by prisoners who became artists while incarcerated.

Examples include political prisoners such as Gustave Courbet, who was held in Saint Pélagie Prison for his role in the Paris Commune uprising of 1871; leaders from Southern Plains nations, who were incarcerated in the US military’s Fort Marion following the Red River War (1874–75); artists imprisoned during World War II as noncombatants like Hans Bellmer, who was interned in France, and a young Ruth Asawa, incarcerated first at the Santa Anita Racetrack, and later at the Rohwer Relocation Center, as part of the US government’s mass internment of Japanese Americans; as well as artists in Soviet Gulags, apartheid-era South Africa, in Central and South American countries under military dictatorships, and in the post-Arab Spring Middle East. The exhibition also presents drawings by members of contemporary American prison populations who found their talent through prison art programs, as well as collections of works by anonymous artist incarcerates working in drawing subgenres specific to US prisons in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, including drawings made on prison-issue handkerchiefs (known as paños chicanos), drawings on the exterior of mailing envelopes, and hand-drawn playing cards.

Installation view: The Pencil Is a Key: Drawings by Incarcerated Artists , The Drawing Center, New York. October 11, 2019 – January 5, 2020. Photo: Martin Parsekian.
Installation view: The Pencil Is a Key: Drawings by Incarcerated Artists , The Drawing Center, New York. October 11, 2019 – January 5, 2020. Photo: Martin Parsekian.

Although captivity does not create a uniform style of drawing, there is little doubt that sustained periods of isolation from society have an impact on artistic expression. Artists often draw what they see, and in prison the view is radically limited. As a result, more portraits are produced than landscapes, and landscapes are most often views out of windows or otherwise reliant on magazine or book illustrations. In some astonishing cases, like that of Guantánamo prisoner Abdualmalik Abud, landscapes are meticulously rendered from memory. Along with portraiture and landscapes, drawings embedded in epistolary texts are common, as are scenes that document daily life in incarceration—some quotidian, others horrific.

Throughout The Pencil Is a Key, examples abound of the ingenious ways that incarcerated artists draw by any means available to them. Laundry pencils, ballpoint pen refills, food, and bodily fluids are applied to scraps of cloth, letters, envelopes, bills, and discarded packaging. Foldable, flat, and unassuming, drawings are also easier to hide than are three-dimensional works, an advantage in circumstances where the act of artmaking itself has the potential to constitute insurgency. Beyond these practical concerns, are other, more existential reasons for the choice of such a primary medium as drawing. Incarcerated artists represented in The Pencil Is a Key use drawing as a means for investigation and reportage, for currency, for mapping, sketching, counting, and measuring, activities that can be helpful, even essential to surviving imprisonment or for struggling against it.

Laura Hoptman, Executive Director, remarked, “In this moment throughout our country and around the world, when all kinds of freedoms are being called into question, it seems to me that we could not have picked a more urgent topic than the ability of drawing to articulate our humanity and express our determination to be free, even in the most dire conditions. For the first exhibition created under my auspices as Executive Director, I wanted all of us at The Drawing Center to collaborate on a show that made a full-throated argument for the essential nature of drawing—or in broader terms, art—to our lives, and in a bigger sense, to the definition of ourselves as human beings.”

Adolf Wölfli, The Kander Valley in the Bernese Oberland, 1926. Pencil and colored pencil on paper, 18 1/2 x 24 3/8 inches (47 x 61.9 cm). American Folk Art Museum, Blanchard-Hill Collection, Gift of M. Anne Hill and Edward V. Blanchard, Jr.
Hubert Robert, An Inmate of Saint-Lazare Prison, 1794. Ink and graphite on paper, 10 1/4 x 13 inches (26 x 33 cm). Private collection. Photography by Kevin Noble
Ruth Asawa, Sumo Wrestlers, 1943. Watercolor on paper, 10 1/2 x 14 1/2 inches (26.7 x 36.8 cm). Private Collection, Artwork © Estate of Ruth Asawa, Courtesy David Zwirner


The exhibition presents a series of works in loan from Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos, established in 2010 in Santiago to document and educate the public about the human rights violations committed in Chile between 1973 and 1990.

At the age of eighteen Rodrigo Silva Vial (1954, Valparaíso–) was detained by General Augusto Pinochet’s military agents and subjected to long sessions of torture, harassment, and interrogation in Santiago. Later, he was transferred to the prison camp on Isla Riesco which would become known as Tres Equis, where he and other prisoners endured forced labor. Courtesy of the Red Cross, prisoners at Tres Equis were allowed limited correspondence with their families. As a result, Vial received a small supply of drawing materials. He observed that “[i]n reality, painting or drawing wasn’t an artistic action, but a way to communicate with our families and to show them where we were.” Vial was freed on December 28, 1973 after having been forced to sign a document that he wasn’t allowed to read. The text on the upper corner of the drawing on view here reads: “This is the view from the door of my little cabin. Nice, right?”

Born in Hungary to Jewish parents at the dawn of World War II, Adam Policzer (1938, Miskolc, Hungary–) survived the Holocaust by hiding among his aunt’s Christian neighbors. After the end of the war, he was reunited with his father, who had fled to Chile in 1939. Living in Santiago, Policzer studied architecture at the University of Chile, and developed a strong affinity with leftist political ideals. When Salvador Allende won the election of 1970, Policzer joined the Socialist Party and became a member of the government’s Urban Improvement Corporation (CORMU). Following the 1973 military coup, Policzer was forced to resign from his post, and soon after was detained. Incarcerated in various Chilean prisons over the course of a single year— including Estadio Nacional, Chacabuco, Ritoque, and Tres Alamos—Policzer began drawing at Estadio Nacional in early 1974, when his wife was allowed to visit and brought him drawing supplies. The drawing on view here features “Caliche,” a quiet and friendly midsize mongrel dog that lived on his block and who would sit without moving long enough that he could draw the animal’s portrait. After his release, Policzer went into exile in Canada with his wife and children.

Miguel Lawner Steiman (1928, Santiago, Chile–) joined the Communist Party in 1945 at age seventeen, a year before enrolling in the School of Architecture at the University of Chile, from which he graduated in 1954. When detained by military agents of the Pinochet dictatorship on September 12, 1973, Lawner was Executive Director of the Urban Improvement Corporation (CORMU), an organization in charge of urban regeneration programs and of public housing projects for army officers. Eventually, Lawner was confined to the Compingim concentration camp, located on Dawson Island in the extreme south of Chile, where the work on view here was created. An already talented draftsperson, Lawner drew copiously at Compingim, both as a therapeutic practice and, in his own words, “with the purpose to give testimony of what had happened there.”

On September 11, 1973 professor of geography and history Lily Ester Rivas Labbé (1935, Cañete, Chile–) was detained in her home by police forces of the Pinochet regime, and driven to the city’s stadium for her participation in the Revolutionary Leftist Movement. After brief transfers to the navy base in Talcacuaho in the Biobío Region of Chile, and later to the Quiriquina island in the bay of Concepción, Rivas was finally transferred to the Estadio Regional (the regional stadium) in Concepción where she found her voice as an artist. At Estadio Regional, which operated as a prison camp from 1973 to 1974, prisoners were allowed controlled communication with their families, and were allowed to receive wrapped packages with food and clothes. Using the reverse of the wrapping paper as a surface, Rivas sketched her surroundings in the camp, including figures lounging at the soccer field visible from the Estadio Regional. On January 20, 1974, Rivas was transeferred to the city’s public jail, and at the end of April of the same year, to the Cárcel de Mujeres del Buen Pastor (the women’s jail), also in Concepción, where she was held until September 11, 1974, when she was transferred to the Tres Alamos prison camp in Santiago. On June 8, 1975, Rivas was exiled from the country, traveling directly from Tres Alamos to Sweden. Her exile revoked, she returned to Chile on December 26, 1978.

Installation view: The Pencil Is a Key: Drawings by Incarcerated Artists , The Drawing Center, New York. October 11, 2019 – January 5, 2020. Photo: Martin Parsekian.
Installation view: The Pencil Is a Key: Drawings by Incarcerated Artists , The Drawing Center, New York. October 11, 2019 – January 5, 2020. Photo: Martin Parsekian.


Artist and journalist Sérgio Sister was nineteen years old when he joined the Brazilian Revolutionary Communist Party. On January 17, 1970, he was arrested by forces of the Brazilian military dictatorship and detained for six months in São Paulo, where he was tortured during violent interrogation sessions. He was later transferred to Tiradentes prison, where he was held until August 1971. In prison, Sister drew every day both as a way to record what was happening and to maintain his mental health. Abundantly colorful, his drawings from prison are reminiscent of a political form of the genre of Pop Art that was popular in Brazil at the time. Sister never gave up his activism—after his release he worked for the Union of Journalists, and in 1979 he co-founded PT (Partido dos Trabalhadores), the Brazilian Workers’ Party.


In 1990, Ángel Delgado executed an unexpected performance piece during the opening of the exhibition El objeto esculturado (The sculpted object) at El Centro de Desarrollo de Artes Visuales in Havana. Positioned in the middle of one of the galleries, Delgado defecated onto pages from the newspaper Granma, the official publication of the Cuban Communist Party. As a result, he was sentenced to six months in prison. While incarcerated, Delgado developed a symbolically charged drawing practice around two personal hieroglyphic systems, one pictographic and one ideographic. Though Delgado does not share the key to decipher his hieroglyphs, these drawings explore the realities of Delgado’s prison experiences, addressing interactions with guards, unhygienic conditions, forced work, and sexual deprivation.

Works by Sérgio Sister. Installation view: The Pencil Is a Key: Drawings by Incarcerated Artists , The Drawing Center, New York. October 11, 2019 – January 5, 2020. Photo: Martin Parsekian.

United States

Invented in the prisons of Texas, California, and New Mexico by pachucos (young male members of the Chicano zoot suit-wearing subculture of the 1940s), paños chicanos belong to an ongoing genre of prison drawing executed on prison-issue handkerchiefs and other small pieces of fabric (paños). A number of common tropes recur in these works, including la vida loca (the crazy life) associated with drugs and crime; viajes (fantasies and dreams); religion; family; and romance. Imagery is drawn from Mexican and Mexican-American culture, tattoos, low-rider detailing, prison life, comic books, and pornographic magazines.


José Álvarez (D.O.P.A.) (1961, Venezuela–), born Devyi Orangel Peña Arteaga, immigrated to the United States in 1984, fleeing homophobic violence at the hands of the Venezuelan police and national guard. In 2012, Alvarez was detained for a period of two months at Krome Detention Center in Miami for immigration violations. Four days into this two-month period, one of Alvarez’s fellow detainees, an undocumented immigrant named Julio, encouraged him to start drawing to stave off symptoms of depression. Julio became the subject of Alvarez’s first portrait at Krome. In the following months, Alvarez made over thirty drawings of undocumented immigrants held by US immigration officials at Krome, using pen refills and legal pads to record their likenesses and to write, for all but four, a short biography of each subject on accompanying sheets of paper. The practice of drawing his fellow detainees became, for Alvarez, a method of survival.

Installation view: The Pencil Is a Key: Drawings by Incarcerated Artists , The Drawing Center, New York. October 11, 2019 – January 5, 2020. Photo: Martin Parsekian.

The Pencil Is a Key: Drawings by Incarcerated Artists is organized by the curatorial team at The Drawing Center: Claire Gilman, Chief Curator; Rosario Güiraldes, Assistant Curator; Laura Hoptman, Executive Director; Isabella Kapur, Curatorial Assistant; and Duncan Tomlin, Curatorial Research Intern. The exhibition will be on view until January 5th, 2020, at The Drawing Center, 35 Wooster Street New York, NY. It will travel to the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, in 2020.

Featured image: Sérgio Sister, Impress your feelings with your fingerprint, 1970. Econoline ink, oil pastel and hydrographic pen on paper, 17 3/8 x 17 inches (44 x 43 cm). Courtesy of the artist and Galeria Nara Roesler

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