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Studio Visit: Sable Elyse Smith


Photo: Madeleine Hunt-Ehlrich

As Sable Elyse Smith wraps up her works to be featured in MOOD: Artist in Residence 201819, I got to sit down with the Artist in Residence at Studio Museum 127 to talk about her practice and how working in Harlem has influenced her.

Smith’s conceptual practice centers around the individuals embedded in the prison system—those within the literal walls and those who exist outside of them. Smith hopes people can gain an understanding of how pervasive the prison industrial complex is and how we all feel its effects.

Smith’s artistic process begins with writing and research from which she identifies what form the work will take. Her desk is stacked high with books, including Simone Browne’s Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness, an intricate analysis of racially motivated surveillance techniques and a text Smith takes much inspiration from. Plastered on the walls are huge, eerie prints from a children’s book, colored in somewhat haphazardly with bright pastels. The drawings show families sitting in a prison waiting room with a figure named Judge Friendly explaining the rules and regulations of the space. Smith uses these blown-up pages to juxtapose the innocence of childhood with the dark and daunting prison room. The pages seem to represent a form of social propaganda, normalizing the dangers and issues that surround incarceration.

Smith emphasizes the impact the prison system has on lives before and during incarceration and the long lasting effects that persist after release. Smith’s well-known coloring books were featured in her exhibit Ordinary Violence in which her neon, print, and video works implicate viewers regardless of their proximity to prison. “Talking about the actual prison space is a tangible thing to locate a viewer. So the work is about prison in some aspects but it’s also about these larger things that have relationship to everyone.”

Working in Harlem has allowed her to focus on her process rather than commodity as she investigates the context, impact, and reception of her work. Smith plans to continue to wrestle with these themes of violence, trauma, and control in her upcoming projects. “My work always points to the people who are embedded in the system and not thinking about statistics and policy and a demographic. Instead thinking about individuals with voices and agency with desires, and cares, and fear and anger.”

See Sable Elyse Smith’s work at the Artist in Residence showcase at MoMA PS1 this spring.  

— Kima Hibbert

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Photo: Liz Ligon

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Photo: Liz Ligon

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Photo: Liz Ligon

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