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Meet The Artists: Been Free

Learn more about the featured artists in Been Free: Incarcerated Artists NFT Project Presented by Hillman Grad and Huma House

Been Free: Incarcerated Artists NFT Project explores themes and societal topics that most NFT collections avoid. Created in partnership with Lena Waithe and supported by Hillman Grad and Huma House, this project uplifts the often-silenced voices of the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated. It is Nifty’s hope that through collections like this, we can continue to promote equity, accessibility, and inclusivity in the NFT space. In anticipation of the drop, we wanted to share some background on the collection’s six works by our four featured artists.

Kush

Kush is a multimedia artist whose layered, vibrant images craft stories that connect us all. In the physical creation of his piece “Sacred Forever’’, the artist mixed the soil of Africa and his own blood in the paint and blended it into the work.

In this work, he expresses his sacred bloodline, his DNA, and the earth of the motherland. Composed of newspaper and magazine clippings collected over the span of 8 months, “Sacred Forever ‘’ depicts a variety of African life and traditions that represents all aspects of the sacred continent; representing the east, west, north, the south, and the soul. The piece is a testament to the experiences Black Americans share, allowing them an opportunity to befriend their ancestry and heritage, an experience many were robbed of.

Still from Kush, Sacred Forever

Says Kush, “My experience with incarceration was around the age of 12 in 1961, I got arrested as a juvenile, from that point on I was in and out of prisons and institutions my whole life until 2001. I was incarcerated every year of my life. The root and foundation was my drug addictions, once I became addicted to drugs I became a slave. Art factored into my freedom. When I began making this work inside prison changed my whole life, it saved me — literally. It got me off drugs, it got me out of prison.”

Kenneth Webb

Kenneth is a self-taught artist, who has been incarcerated since he was 18 years old and is currently serving a life sentence. He’s one of two artists exhibiting multiple works for this collection. All proceeds from the sale of these works benefit Huma Cares.

“I am incarcerated in a time where COVID-19, Donald Trump, and massive social unrest have swept through our lives with a vengeance. Navigating this landscape was a delicate endeavor for me, I found myself having to adapt to a new emotional language and in many ways referring to aesthetic language that has been used by artists before me.

I believe these pieces are a summary of a channel of communication. I had to literally find space in my mind to visit with artists and engage their perspective of black life. It was there I discovered textures, hue and a greater context of black as a pigment. Creativity is a universal force flowing through every entity of existence.”

His first, “Super Predator”, is a commentary on the harmful narrative spun by the Clinton’s in the 90s which led to the locking up of thousands of black men. The work explores the trauma inflicted on the youth of that generation as well as the chain of events that unfolded because of that narrative. The children depicted in the piece represent Webb as a child as well as Tobias Tubbs, Anthony Bomani and the many thousands of young black men in Los Angeles who suffered the damages of the Super Predator rhetoric.

Still from Kenneth Webb, Super Predator

His second piece, “Three Women”, honors the matriarchal line and female strength. In the piece we see three women, pregnant with hope. The woman in red represents the bloodline, the woman in white represents the spirit and the woman in black represents the present self. Each is crowned and stands tall ready for the journey ahead.

Still from Kenneth Webb, Three Women

Asia Johnson

Asia Johnson is an organizer, activist, mentor, performance artist and poet from Detroit, Michigan and the sole female artist in the collection. As a formerly incarcerated artist, her work centers around themes of race, criminal justice and equality.

Her piece, “Freedom Unfathomable”, shows 8 formerly incarcerated women standing hand in hand in an open field (8 represents the number of women assigned to one cell in the state of California). Between these women, they’ve spent a collective 50 years incarcerated. We see the subjects dressed in white, standing in an open space, to symbolize the peace as well as the freedom that was unfathomable inside.

Still from Asia Johnson, Freedom Unfathomable

Says Johnson, “I’m formerly incarcerated. I write, produce, and direct short films that explores the trauma to prison pipeline featuring a cast made up entirely of formerly incarcerated women. During my own incarceration, I realized that you should not squeeze a woman’s life into a 6 x 8 foot cell. Women are the fastest-growing segment of the incarcerated population. That would make every single woman in prison out of place. My work is about women re-discovering their voice in a system meant to silence and forget them.”

Gary Harrell

Gary Harrell is the final artist in our Been Free drop as well as the contributor of two original pieces. The artist spent 45 years in prison, during which he was not able to express his physical self to his loved ones. He found refuge in his artwork, gathering pieces from magazines and placing them in composition to feel the freedom and love that he was denied.

“I started making art in 1985, eight years into a prison sentence that I would serve until 2020 — forty-five years in all. Before being incarcerated, I had played the harmonica and ridden a unicycle without falling off, which is itself a kind of art. But I had never considered turning to visual art until I saw other men in prison making it. I started out doing woodwork and molding glass and plastic. As I began liking and improving my craft — as I expanded into new media like block prints, advanced techniques like pointillism — the meaning of art changed for me. It transformed from a desire and a hobby into a need and a vocation. I wondered how different my circumstances might have been had I discovered this passion earlier in my life.”

Harrell’s first piece, “Black Love”, portrays a heroic, goddess-like black woman standing on the foam of the sea in a surrealistic backdrop. The all seeing eye stands overhead and abstract statues flank her left and right.

Still from Gary Harrell, Black Love

In his second featured work, “Gary Harrell Playing the Blues”, the artist depicts himself lost in the music of his harmonica. Gary created this work first as a lithograph and then used the artistic technique of pointillism to create a field of color. In the composition we see music swirl from his hands as the sun shines its inspiration into his head and onto his back.

Still from Gary Harrell, Gary Harrell Playing the Blues

The NFT drop and sale begin March 31, 2022 , exclusively on Nifty’s. Each NFT has been transformed digitally from a physical piece of art created by our selected artists with all profits benefiting both Huma House and the artists.

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