Show director Tatiana von Furstenberg points to a quote on a wall inside the Abrons Arts Center (LES): “Admire as I remove the veil for all the universe to see.” It’s poignant, touching and one of many currently on display alongside a collection of 450 works of art created by incarcerated LGBTQ artists for the group show, On the Inside.

on-the-inside-sex_box_large_christopher_watkins-nyc-untapped-citiesImage via Christopher Watkins

The exhibition is the culmination of a long-term project conceived by Tatiana von Furstenberg in collaboration with Black and Pink, an organization working towards the abolition of the prison industrial complex that works against LGBTQ people. The multi-year endeavor began with an ad placed in Black and Pink’s newsletter, calling for works of art. Seizing the opportunity for self-expression and advocacy, over 4,000 pieces were submitted by currently incarcerated LGBTQ artists – prisoners whose voices are often unheard or silenced due to marginalization and the unforgiving nature of the system.

LGBTQ prisoners, for example, are strip searched repeatedly, and are more likely to experience physical assault and sexual abuse. They are also less likely to have a strong support system outside of prison.


The artwork sheds light on a side of prison we do not witness on an overt level. Within the collection, you’ll find familiar and unfamiliar faces: images of strangers along with celebrities like Michael Jackson, Jay-Z and Rihanna (a lot of Rihanna), made from basic materials like letter-sized paper, dull pencils, ball-point pen ink tubes, and other things prisoners are given access to. They are hung on walls, decorated by blown-up images of protagonists taken from the drawings and with quotes pulled from letters that came with the art.

on-the-inside-rihanna_wall_detail_1_large_christopher_watkins-nyc-untapped-citiesImage via Christopher Watkins

Altogether, the collective body of works delve on themes dealing with loss, spirituality, love and identity (you’ll notice that there no self-portraits in prison attire). They touch upon stories of personal trials (“My dad beat me for even thinking about art”) and triumphs (“I have no reason to hold my head down because I am what I am and I love it”), as well as dreams (” My dream is to be a tattoo artist someday. I am going to save half of every dollar I making drawing so I can purchase equipment and food when they drop me off at the Mexican border.”)

Visitors can communicate directly with incarcerated artists via a transcribing service (they can input text which will reach the artists via snail mail). Image via Christopher Watkins

They are deeply intimate to the artist, yet relatable to humanity on even the most basic level, regardless of a person’s sexual orientation, color or creed. Using art, the vast community of incarcerated LGBTQ artists is able to create and find beauty despite being locked up behind concrete and steel bars. We, as the audience on the outside, are also able bear witness to a story that needs to be told (and retold).

ON THE INSIDE is being presented at the Abrons Arts Center from November 5th – December 28th. For more information, click here.

Next, check out 13 of NYC’s Active Prisons: Rikers Island, The Tombs, Manhattan Correctional Center.