Art from death row - by artists facing execution in the US

By Maroshini Krishna Morgan, Assistant Director of Amicus

Piled high in the cupboards of Amicus' tiny London office are over 30 incredible pieces of art.

Sent to us from death rows across the US, included amongst them are arresting portraits, scenic landscapes and many, many images of nature. They have all been produced by men who will likely never again see the outside world.

I work for Amicus, a small UK-based charity which helps to provide legal assistance to inmates facing execution in the US. We received the art in the course of organising Art for Amicus, a series of exhibitions of artwork by artists on death row. Art for Amicus was borne from the aim to enable people to put a human face to our cause. We hope these exhibitions will draw (pun intended!) people in and help us to succeed in that objective.

An insight to experiences of death row

Art from death row - Amicus

For me, the jewels in the crown of the exhibitions are twin profiles of a Cherokee man and woman. Created using paintbrushes made from the artist's own hair and 'paint' made from crushed colour pencils, flavoured drink mix and instant coffee, the bold stares of the subjects follow viewers around the room.

The arrival of artwork by a particular Northeastern artist never fails to bring smiles to our faces. He has sent us several pieces, and the joy and purposefulness he feels in creating them shines through in his correspondence. As his attorney has told us "truly, [art] is a reason to live, on death row."

Personal favourites of mine are sketches donated to Amicus some years ago. The artist reports that authorities took away most of his art supplies in 2005 and that he is now unable to make any art. His experience is by no means unique - some US inmates benefit from relaxed rules on art supplies, while others languish in solitary confinement without exposure to positive stimuli.

We were struck by how this mirrors the arbitrariness of the death penalty in the US. The race of the victim and perpetrator, the county in which the crime is committed and other factors that simply should not influence the decision to execute, ultimately do.

London exhibition and events

Do visit the exhibition while it's at Amnesty's offices this week.

We at Amicus are so grateful to Amnesty International for helping us bring this art to a wider audience. Amnesty became involved thanks to introductions made by Niranjela Karunatilake. In April 2015, Niranjela herself organised an exhibition with Amnesty of paintings by her cousin, Australian Myuran Sukumaran, who had been imprisoned in Indonesia since 2005 for his role in a failed drug-smuggling plot. Tragically, Myuran was executed by firing squad later that month.

Through art, as Niranjela and Myuran did, we hope to humanise death row. As stated by contemporary artist Bob and Roberta Smith, who will be headlining, alongside American comedian Reginald D Hunter, the largest Art for Amicus event in November, "Art gives a voice to the voiceless."

Please do consider coming to the free Amicus-Amnesty exhibition or our London art exhibition and auction on 29 November, which will be headlined by our supporters Reginald D Hunter and Bob and Roberta Smith. Find out more and buy tickets

Thank you for your support.

The Amnesty-Amicus exhibition is a free exhibition at Amnesty UK's buildings in Shoreditch, London. It runs Tuesday 10 - Sunday 16 October, 9am-6pm every day.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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