Artist Brianna Mims on the Embodiment of an Abolitionist Framework

Interviewed by Devany Harden

Brianna Mims performing “Jail Bed Drop” at MOCA, Photo by Giovanni Solis

Brianna Mims is an artist, abolitionist, and facilitator based in Los Angeles, CA. Mims is a graduate of the University of Southern California where she studied Dance and NGOs and Social Change. She currently works for Californians United for a Responsible Budget and is a Toulmin Fellow.

Some of her recent projects include Jail Bed Drop, an interactive installation and performance series exploring the intricacies of the prison system, and Letters from the Etui, a multimedia platform that hosts visual letters from incarcerated folks and workshops supporting abolitionist frameworks.

We spoke with Mims about her work, how she found her calling in the movement space, what abolition means to her, and how she curates projects that spark conversation and change.

Devany Harden (Curate LA): My first question for you, I would just love to hear a little bit about your roots, what you do, how you got started, and how your practice has come to be what it is today.

Brianna Mims: I am from Augusta, Georgia, and Jacksonville, Florida. I started dancing when I was really little with a ballet and tap combo class. I did that for a while, kind of fell off from dance. My grandma had a whole situation where she thought that I didn’t have rhythm and she was like, “How you gon’ be a Black child and you don’t have rhythm?!” She dropped me off at this marching band practice and made me join, so I was dancing in a marching band for a while when I was in Georgia.

And then I moved to Florida. I got to pick which elementary school I wanted to go to and I just happened to pick an art school and I chose to focus on dance. Fifth grade is also when I joined a dance studio here in Jacksonville, Florida. I was in art school for elementary, middle, and high school. Then I went to USC Kaufman for their dance program as well. So, I’ve been dancing for a long time.

Brianna Mims in Karmina’s ‘Fire All Over You,’ Produced by Michael Schwartz, Photo by Sean Longstreet

Devany: When did you realize dance was the path that you wanted to take as opposed to something else? Or is that just what you had in mind the whole time?

Mims: For a long time I was so enmeshed in the dance world that it just seemed like that was what I was supposed to do. And around maybe my junior year of high school is when I started to question that a little bit more, but I couldn’t figure it out. I wasn’t really sure of how dance would play a role in my life or work but I knew it wasn’t a traditional path.

Once I got to Kaufman at USC, that’s when I started to kind of gravitate to other things and it felt like a huge playground. I got to explore so many parts of myself. I started making connections and putting pieces together and things began to flow really beautifully. It wasn’t until my junior year at Kaufman, where I realized I don’t want to be in a dance company or go the commercial dance route. I loved dance and I wanted it to be a part of my work in my life, but not in a traditional sense. So, I just started following my instincts and doing the things that felt right, and here I am!

Devany: I would love to hear more about how you’ve found your art practice within a less traditional path. I know you said you’re a multifaceted artist. How do you connect your dancing with the other interests that you have?

Brianna Mims in ‘Jail Bed Drop,’ Photo by Phil America

Mims: It’s really hard to specify, because it just feels like it happens so organically and I think every project that I do is really different. Right now, I’m constantly looking for the gaps between our abolitionist framework and our collective praxis and creating work to meet those needs. What mediums are needed are always different. The only thing that feels really constant to me right now is that I’m an abolitionist and I’m an artist.

I’m not married to the idea that I’m a dancer. I’m finding myself creating films, dabbling in fashion, creating a game, and directing larger-scale projects. However, my body and movement are consistent and the baseline for everything I do, including the advocacy work I do at CURB (Californians United for a Responsible Budget).

Devany: Why do you think that movement and the body are good places to sort of host these conversations about larger societal issues and your activism?

Mims: One, it feels incredibly healing. Our bodies are a site of liberation. Connecting to the pleasures, sensations, ancestral memory, cultural knowledge, and even simply tending to our bodies can be such a guide for our healing work, care work, memory work, dream work, and, really, liberation work in every medium. I’m so fascinated with our bodies and all of the things that we can learn from them.

Devany: That’s so beautiful. What would you define your own style as now? And how have you come to develop that over the years using that information?

Mims: In regards to movement, I would say I can’t define the style. It seems like it’s always different. Sometimes I don’t even know what it is, but it’s what feels good.

It’s really interesting to observe. I definitely pull from the vocabulary of different movement styles that I’ve trained in, but it’s rarely one specific style. A lot of times I’m just improvising and whatever comes out, comes out.

One time I tried learning the movement I was doing in a video of me improvising and I couldn’t! I’m like, “What kind of coordination is that?!” I don’t even understand what I was doing. I feel like there’s also brilliance in that as well to to be in that sort of, what I call a “blacked-out space.” That space has taught me to surrender and honor the unknowing because there is so much magic, brilliance, and divinity in that place.

Devany: And, thinking of the projects you’re working on, what would you say is your mission as an artist overall?

Mims: With the larger-scale projects, I’m thinking about what shifts are needed on a cultural level to create an abolitionist world, how to support policy, how to redistribute money, how to facilitate spaces for conversation, dreaming, and educating. And, you know, how we can better engage with each other and our relationship to the earth. And that’s kind of the throughline of those sort of large-scale projects.

Devany: When speaking of abolition, can you tell me what you mean by that and your goals surrounding it?

Mims: Abolition is the dismantling of anything that polices, imprisons, or surveils us. That not only includes things on a systemic level, but these carceral ideologies that show up in our culture, institutions, and the way we relate to ourselves and one another. We have to practice care-based accountability, not punishment-based accountability that perpetuates cycles of harm. Abolition also includes the reimagining of public safety, which Ruthie Wilson Gilmore always says requires a shift in everything.

And like I said, I also work for Californians United for a Responsible Budget. That’s also an abolitionist organization focusing on prison closure, budget advocacy, and passing legislation. I love to really make sure the policy work and cultural work are in alignment and informing one another so that the shifts we are creating are sustainable. But, yeah, it’s really about a new way of being and living amongst each other. We have to learn how to live more interdependently.

Brianna Mims in ‘Jail Bed Drop,’ Photo by Phil America

Devany: Can you elaborate a little bit on that? So you’re talking about the cultural work as well as the policy work. How can artists help policy and vice versa?

Mims: A lot of my art practice is focused on facilitating spaces to collectively unpack and explore the ways in which these carceral ideologies play out in our culture. Like I mentioned before, this will create more sustainable policy shifts when we do this cultural work alongside it. I do think policy work is vital but it is really a surface-level solution to the problems at hand. Like, we are addicted to punishment.

In Jail Bed Drop, we always support a piece of legislation. I always make sure our work has a ‘call to action’ and there is usually a ballot measure or bill included amongst other things. We supported Measure R for about a year. We dedicated one wall of the installation to Measure R where we included basic information about the measure and how people can be involved. It also included a QR code where people can sign up to volunteer with the campaign. It’s important to me to create these direct throughlines from policy to culture.

What I’m really focusing on right now is how we can imagine and create these dream spaces for folks to try out these new worlds, and practice them. I feel like there’s so much that art can do to serve the mission of abolition — on a cultural level and to support policy at the same time.

Brianna Mims and Bindhu Swaminathan in ‘Jail Bed Drop,’ Photo by Giovanni Solis

Devany: Yeah, that’s fascinating. I think it’s amazing that you’re putting in this work at the cultural level to push forward policy as well.

I want to get a little bit into some of the projects that you’ve worked on. Let’s start with Jail Bed Drop. Can you tell me about how you came to be involved in it?

Mims: Yeah, so Jail Bed Drop started in 2017 with Justice L.A. It was started by Patrisse Cullors and Cecila Sweet-Coll. I was a part of the Creative Action Team at that time, and we did many Jail Bed Drops together. For my senior project at USC, I wanted to expand upon it. So, I put out an artist call for anyone who was interested in collaborating. I knew I wanted to work with architecture students to build some sort of interactive installation, so I got a team together.

And that’s how the larger scale project (that has been done many times) has happened. Bindhu Swaminathan is the spoken word artist, I share movement, Minh-Hân Vu and Georgina Grkikian built the installation, and Adam Drazan designed the soundscape. It’s so detailed in all of the nuances of the project and we’ve done it so many times now. It’s a lot for me to manage, direct, and perform all at the same time, but it’s always such a fulfilling adventure.

Spoken Word Artist Bindhu Swaminathan in ‘Jail Bed Drop,’ Photo by Giovanni Solis

Devany: Did it get easier to organize everything as time went on?

Mims: Oh! We learned a lot in the process! I mean, there were times where we didn’t have people to help us carry the pieces. There was one time where I had to bribe people on the side of the road to help carry stuff. [laughs] The bed is the actual weight of a jail bed. And someone had told us when they were incarcerated they actually used to use the jail bed to bench press. That bed is so heavy! The walls are heavy.

I was thinking like, “Why did I think I could do this with a team of a couple of people? And then dance after that?” [laughs]

Mims: A lot of people were having conversations. I had a professor that had never heard of abolition who went home, talked to their partner about it, came back to me, and wanted to talk more about it. He started reading books in regards to the prison-industrial complex. I had a lot of peers that were in my dance cohort at Kaufman write papers on the project. And people had lots of questions.

They wanted to learn more and that felt successful for me. Even today, I still have people hit me up to use the work for reference in a paper, project, or presentation. There’s always this reflection of what we can do better, and every time we’ve made changes to Jail Bed Drop, we’ve grown and added elements in so many different ways.

But overall, I think the different access points into the conversation helps the success of the project. From the performance element, getting inside of the dome to reflect on personal values, to the questions on the back wall of the room, to reading the stories of the personal objects of system-impacted people in the room, to the broken down timeline of the prison system in the US, and the calls to action, the project as a whole allows everyone to collectively explore and sit with questions together.

The Original ‘Jail Bed Drop’ in Los Angeles, CA, Photos by Ella Mikayelyan

Devany: How do you set it up so that these conversations can be had? What’s your process in getting this reaction?

Mims: The performance happens first, and Bindhu and I are grappling with these questions through our own artistic mediums. We are also having a ceremony during the performance to honor the lives of system-impacted folks. When the performance is over, the audience is able to interact with the installation.

They are able to get into the dome and be in dialogue with other folks around self-reflective questions like, “Is human touch important to you?,” “What makes you feel you have a sense of dignity?,” “What does accountability look like in your personal relationships?,” and “What would you like to see in your community?”

There are also questions on the back wall of the room that help folks analyze some of the ideologies that uphold the prison-industrial complex. Questions like, “What makes someone deserving of imprisonment?” Something about abolition that I love is it breaks this notion of the deserving versus the undeserving.

They have access to historical and statistical information via the timeline and they get to sit with the personal stories behind the items in the room. People are introduced to new ideas and new questions that they might not even be able to answer right there on the spot, but they can go home and sit with them.

Devany: OK, the other project you’re working on is the Suit Project. You are busy, busy, busy. What’s going on with that?

Mims: The Suit Project consists of the creation of a book and a book launch that includes a dance performance exploring the symbolism of suits. I have a team of seamstresses, and we’re deconstructing and redesigning these old suits. We just finished the designs for the suits and we did a suit drive. We haven’t gotten a ton of suits, so we’re going to just work on one at a time until we have enough funds. From there, we’re planning to do photoshoots for each of them starting in April.

Photo by Alex Kennedy

Devany: What else can we know about the end goal of this project?

Mims: I’m looking at many aspects that relate to suits; ideas of professionalism, respectability politics, capitalism, all these sorts of different things. Inside of the published book with photos of the deconstructed, reconstructed suits, there will also be some interviews that I’ve done that will be transcribed and text that I will have written.

I’m also interested in collecting photos of folks in suits and showcasing how suits are worn on a regular basis. I started learning about Dandyism and I felt like I needed to take more time to sit and learn. Between the Dandy movement and Black folks in the South, freaking the suit with the different colors and patterns — there’s just so much richness there.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this project in regards to the ways in which we cultivate belonging and the ways in which suits sort of create this social and economic hierarchy that leads to some sort of dignity and respectability as it relates to productivity and capitalism. This idea of belonging feels interesting. We’re seeing folks who don’t have funds spending so much money to wear suits, to feel dignified, and to earn respect.

I say that not to diss the Dandy movement, because I also think there’s so much brilliance in there and I have a lot of respect for it as well, but that specific element as it relates to belonging and the willingness to sacrifice to wear a suit — and to see this happening across the world — it’s really fascinating. I don’t think I fully understand it yet, but I think it says a lot about the ways in which we cultivate belonging.

TriKe, a short film created by Brianna Mims and Giselle Bonilla.

Devany: That’s so interesting. I’m so excited to see what the final result is. I want to touch on Letters from the Etui, also. Tell me about how you organized that project.

Mims: A professor from Cal State L.A. who had attended the last Jail Bed Drop we did in March, Dr. Kamran Afary, had contacted me and asked me to do something with a series of videos that came from a writing assignment in his class in the Communication Studies Prison B.A. Program. The students had recorded their voices through payphones inside of the prison, and then campus students did animations using their voices.

At the time, Minh-Hân Vu, Georgina Grkikian, and I had these animated shorts and we didn’t know what to do with them. So, when Mandy Harris Williams from the Women’s Center for Creative Work hit me up, and asked if I had anything that I wanted to do, it felt like a perfect opportunity.

Still from “Finding Common Ground on Prison Grounds,” Written and Narrated by Deon Whitmore, Animated and Directed by Stephanie Salas and Vanessa Salas

Devany: I would love to hear more about how you settled on this idea of turning these animated shorts into “visual letters” for the project, and why you created letter-themed merch to go with them.

Mims: Dr. Afary has a family member named Fridea Afary, and he told me to get in contact with her. She also does abolition work in North Africa, in the Middle East, which is also an area that I am interested in. It just felt like a great opportunity to have abolition as a global conversation.

Fridea told me that she had actually been translating letters from political prisoners in Iran to English. I had already come to this idea of letters because I wanted to create some sort of merch to sell to get money back to folks that were inside.

The whole sort of vote-by-mail fiasco was happening and I came to this idea of envelopes for merch. Then, I started thinking about stamps. I brought that to Minh-Hân and she was like, “What if we did “I voted” stickers?”

For the envelopes, we looked to some of the Jail Bed Drop artists that we’ve worked with in the past. The first person I called was Chris. We had worked with him for our Jail Bed Drop that we had just done.

I was like, “We want to do an envelope series and we want to know if you wanted to do some sketches on the envelopes.” And this man tells me, “When I was incarcerated, I used to actually draw on my envelopes.” He said, “People would then sell them because once it was sent from the prison with the prison stamp, that was considered prison art. People would sell them and send the money back inside to me. And that’s how I would make money.”

And he said, “Once the prison figured out what I was doing, they banned me from drawing on my envelopes,” and I said, “Oh, this is this project. This is the project!” And there were just so many throughlines from the vote-by-mail fiasco to Christian’s story to letter-writing just being the main form of communication for incarcerated folks.

Frieda’s letters showed us how incarcerated folks were using letter writing as a form of advocacy. The video series explored themes of memory, reflection, and hopes — things typically shared between letters with friends and family. That’s why, in the end, we decided to frame those animated shorts from Dr. Afary’s class as visual letters. Letter writing felt like a good place to begin to explore the carceral system and introduce abolitionist theory and praxis.

The project was just moving on its own. And every time we had a team meeting, I’d come in like, “You won’t believe this.”

‘Letters from the Etui’ envelope design by Christian Branscombe

Devany: You also curated programming for the project. What did that look like?

Mims: There were three programs and I wanted for folks to get this sort of theory or lecture component at the beginning. For the first one, we touched on the ballot measures that were going to be on that upcoming ballot. Then for the second, I wanted people to hear directly from system-impacted folks, whether it be through story or art. In the last one, I wanted it to be more so an embodiment of healing tools that would be directly applicable to the folks who were participating.

Devany: And how did you come up with the title, Letters from the Etui?

Mims: We played off of this theme of letters, but it was still hard to come up with the name. We brainstormed titles like, “letters from…,” “letters to…”. We were just sitting there for a long time when Minh-Hân’s roommate came across the word ‘etui,’ which is a small ornamental case where you keep really precious items, but it was derived from the old French word ‘estui,’ which meant prison.

I was very clear that whatever the word after “Letters from…” or “Letters to…” was, it shouldn’t be very overt. It should be something mysterious that would get people to say, like, “What is that? I’m not sure what that is.” And so when her roommate found that word, I was like, “That’s the word!” It was really beautiful how everything came together so organically.

Devany: That’s like magic. It’s just like something that needed to happen.

Brianna Mims in ‘Jail Bed Drop,’ Photo by Phil America

Mims: Every time I do a project. I’m so amazed. And what I keep learning is; when I have an idea or I have a vision, there’s only so much that I can do on my own. I have to have discernment when bringing in my collaborators and I have to trust their brilliance. I have to let go of what my sort of end goal is and my ideal vision and let it be what it needs to be. Because if I was like, “This is only this,” then I wouldn’t have been open to those other conversations or ideas.

I really follow and observe everyone in the movement space and the development of our abolition and transformative justice frameworks. It just feels as if I’m going around, and there are these little pieces that I’m collecting and then somehow, they all come together in a project. And while I’m on that journey, I find some more pieces to bring in. And then it’s just like this thing that is so different from when I started. It’s really beautiful to be on every project. Each time it feels like a new adventure.

Devany: So you just have to be open and receptive to a lot of things.

Mims: Exactly, I think this idea of listening to our instincts and the sensations that happen in the body is so important. It’s about being aware and then also meeting needs.

Devany: Speaking of that, how has the year 2020 affected you? What are you taking from it and what have you learned?

Mims: One, with the isolation part, being a dancer was a lot to figure out. Like, I need a place to move my body. I love dancing and being in community with people. I can’t dance in communion with people right now, but I’ve learned having a committed process to my body every day is something that has to be consistent for me.

Brianna Mims in Karmina’s ‘Fire All Over You,’ Produced by Michael Schwartz, Photo by Sean Longstreet

And then in terms of the work that I’m doing, it feels like it’s the same work. You know, I’ve been doing this work in movement space for a while. And so, it feels almost a bit joyous to have abolition be a mainstream conversation. It feels like there’s more opportunity to get people on board to actually create more change and more shifts in people and policy right now. Everything feels really exciting work-wise, both at CURB and art-wise. I feel like more people will be engaged in the conversation and we can get things done.

Brianna Mims has a presentation for her fellowship on April 8th at 6 p.m., where she will be talking more about her past work and a new game that she is developing. To learn more about The Suit Project, click here. You can follow Mims on Instagram at @bj_mims and visit her website to see more work.

Devany Harden is a choreographer, actress, and writer from Moreno Valley, CA. She graduated from the University of California, Riverside with a B.A. in Theatre, Film, & Digital Production, and a minor in Marketing. You can find her on Instagram at

All images courtesy of the artist.

Curate LA is Los Angeles’ most comprehensive art discovery platform. Our mission is to promote the economic and cultural development of L.A. by making its artistic ecosystem radically accessible to everyone. We deliver curated information on upcoming shows, exhibitions, museums, artist studios and galleries across the city. Connect with us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook + help us in our mission to promote L.A.’s artists, galleries and institutions by becoming a supporting member here.



Curate LA is Los Angeles’s most comprehensive art discovery platform.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Curate LA

Curate LA is Los Angeles’s most comprehensive art discovery platform.