Nashvillian Adelicia Acklen, known locally for her ownership of Belmont Plantation, inherited an 18,000-acre Louisiana plantation from her first husband in 1845. Her inheritance also included other properties that made her the richest woman in the Volunteer State. It also made her the owner of 750 slaves. A new photography exhibition at the Frist Center connects to Acklen and her troubled legacy, but also ties to present day Nashville, the home of CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America), the face of America’s for-profit prison industry.
Slavery, the Prison Industrial Complex: Photographs by Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick in the Gordon Contemporary Artists Project Gallery at the Frist Center documents the lives of the prisoners at Louisiana State Penitentiary — more popularly known as Angola. We see the prisoners staring out at the camera’s lens through the bars of their cells, but we also see them working on the prison’s extensive cotton and sugarcane farms on the same site as Acklen’s former plantation. (She sold the property in 1880 and it became a prison farm in 1901.) In fact, photos like “Ditch Digging,” which pictures shirtless prisoners hunched over in a sun-pummeled field wielding heavy tools across muddy ground, immediately recalls Acklen’s antebellum South and the chattel slavery that made such privilege possible for her and her class.
The exhibition is an indictment of America’s prison industrial complex, which regularly exploits incarcerated populations as a dirt-cheap labor force. More importantly, the display offers a deep meditation on the two defining factors of prison life: space and time. “Two To A Six By Eight Foot Cell at Angola Prison” pictures the titular pair of prisoners in their prison home. In addition to two matching cots, the jam-packed space is filled out with an open toilet and a sink on the back wall of the cell.
In another image, we see the hands of prisoners from adjacent cells reaching through their bars to move pieces on a chess board set up in the corridor just outside their cell doors. These images spotlight the crowded quarters in Angola, but the chess game image also speaks to the need to kill time in a place where time is the only thing in abundance.
Photos like “Glenn Demourelle Served 27 Years In Angola State Prison,” “Daddy’O, The Oldest Inmate in Angola State Penitentiary,” and “Young Man, Angola State Penitentiary” document three generations of black men caught-up in what critics of American institutional racism call the Cradle-to-Prison Pipeline, which unfairly targets black boys and men for arrests and prosecutions.
The exhibition is rounded out with almost surreal color photographs of the Angola Prison Rodeo and an interactive installation that consists of a section of cyclone fencing visitors can pin notes to. “State of TN has a Angola too — it’s called ‘Tri-Cor CCA’” reads one. “GREED GREED GREED…” reads another. The installation is a welcome addition that offers a starting place for the conversations the exhibition provokes. It also reminds us the exploitation of the black man’s labor isn’t just something that happened a century and a half ago, but continues this day to the benefit of companies like Nashville’s own CoreCivic.