This brief article is written in order to remember Ojore Lutalo’s story. And to showcase some of his artwork. Ojore is a black liberation revolutionary. He is affiliated with the Black Liberation Army and the Anarchist Black Cross foundation.
Affiliations that lead to 22 years of his 28 year prison sentence being in solitary confinement. Ojore was captured after an armed bank expropriation in 1975, after having a gun battle with police in order to secure the money he wanted to use to fund his cause, money liberated from a state bank.
According to Solitary Watch: “Since his release is 2009, Ojore dedicates himself to assisting the American Friends Service Committee in its attempt to expose the true nature and extent of long-term isolation, its effect both on the prisoner individually as well as society at large. This outreach often involves speaking engagements in which he uses artwork to re-enforce his text, finding visuals often communicate more effectively than a purely oral presentation. Often after speaking, Ojore receives requests from individuals to purchase his artwork. The limited proceeds from the sale of these pieces allow Ojore to continue to volunteer his time to the American Friends Service Committee.”
From the perspective of a South African I can’t help but relate Ojore’s work to Apartheid. When conducting a study on the effect of protest art on the South African Apartheid context. As with most art preceding an age of “pageviews” and “shares”, the effectiveness of creating social change is incredibly nebulous in it’s measurement. Artists across all mediums could only attest to the mental shift within small communities and their personal circles. This was often based on the spaces that these works occupied, small galleries and cult venues. Truly subversive and informative media was often protected and distributed amongst those already informed. Contributing to the glacial pace that is academic evolution. Poster art was the clear rogue element. It removed the aspect of ego from the work, the artist wasn’t necessarily credited. This made the work much safer for the artist to distribute because they wouldn’t be held responsible for the alteration of Dogma, a responsibility that was often fatal. The content of Poster art was not obscured by the ambiguity often required in work where the artist was present. Poster art was to other mediums what contemporary history textbooks are to “Animal Farm”.
The lucidity of this work and it’s availability for mass production made it arguably the most effective medium for social change of all the South African art produced under the Apartheid regime. I would argue that these characteristics are universal.
It is this lucidity that is mirrored in the work of Ojore Lutalo. And it is this lucidity that scared a prison system enough to keep him in solitary confinement for 22 of his 28 years in prison, a lucidity that he maintains after 22 years of attempting to cloud his mind with insanity. An attempt consisting of complete isolation and no-touch torture. Ojore’s protest defied the bounds of the prison system. Sent out on 8 x 10 paper, It would be enlarged to 3 x 4 feet of indoor Vinyl by social worker Bonnie Kerness. It is through this process that the conditions of those in Solitary could be faithfully communicated to the outside world, rather than being held captive in a suffering man’s head.
Ojore Lutalo was arrested for an armed bank expropriation, but his solitary occupation has been formally credited to his political beliefs and association being a threat to the prison system. Lutalo cites the creation of political poster/propoganda style art as a mechanism for the maintenance of his sanity. Ojore Lutalo provided the following description of his artwork: “Over the years Ojore was asked repeatedly to describe the conditions that he faced on a daily basis. These requests ranged from simple curiosity as to the physical particulars of his cell and surroundings to the profound emotional pressures and struggles associated with long-term solitary confinement. Ojore began creating his political propaganda both as a way to maintain his sanity and to more adequately convey to his friends the physical and emotional reality he experienced within solitary confinement. For the last 22 years of his confinement Ojore created a wide range of art pieces offering his unique perspective.
The importance of occluding the messages of such an individual to the point of paying people to keep him trapped for 22 years on his own demonstrates an Ill in the American prison system that is insidiously terrifying.
Following Lutalo’s release, he was arrested a few months later. The reason given was “interfering with public transportation (threatening to blow up an Amtrak train)” . The prosecutor cited the reason as being that other passengers had heard Lutalo make terrorist threats in a phone call. When questioned all but two of the other passengers said that they had heard no such terrorist content in the phone call. He required $4500 bail nonetheless, which placed him in debt. The nature of his arrest was disturbing, even more disturbing is the unashamed regret of his arresting officer Mobley and assistant district attorney Barta for having not murdered him instead. The “inconvenience” of abiding by the rules of the law being more important than the life of an innocent man.
You can listen to an audio clip of their conversation Here:
Rather than being disturbed by the inhumanity with which his life is treated, Ojore responded as follows when asked about the call:
“That tape? People need to hear what’s been said. This is how they think, this is how they operate, behind closed doors. Again, if it could happen to me, it could happen to you. You don’t need to do anything. They kept me in isolation for 22 years just for entertaining thoughts they didn’t approve of. And they put that in writing.”
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