Grief, Trauma, Love: A Discussion between Nicole Fleetwood and Pepón Osorio
Scholar and curator Nicole Fleetwood talks with artist Pepón Osorio about his work Badge of Honor and the scourge of mass incarceration.
Nicole Fleetwood, Pepón Osorio
Jan 10, 2022
Currently on view at MoMA, Pepón Osorio’s installation Badge of Honor, a key work in the artist’s production, is prescient in its portrayal of the devastating impact of incarceration on a family from Newark, New Jersey, during the mid-1990s. Osorio’s practice is broadly committed to community and to critical engagement in issues of race and social justice. Born out of the artist’s background in social work, performance, video, and installation, Badge of Honor provides a physically and emotionally charged space brought to life with a moving video conversation between an incarcerated father at New Jersey’s Northern State Prison and his teenage son at their family home. Filming over several weeks, Osorio traveled back and forth between the prison and the family’s residence, sharing footage with the father and son to capture a distanced yet intimate exchange, as they grappled with their separation and its impact on their family. The resulting work incorporates two separate projections of the father and son, which face opposite sides of a wall separating two dramatically opposed spaces: a prison cell and a teenager’s bedroom.
The recent acquisition and gallery installation of Badge of Honor continues MoMA’s commitment to conversations about mass incarceration and follows scholar Nicole Fleetwood’s watershed exhibition Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, which was presented at MoMA PS1 in 2020. We invited Fleetwood to talk with Osorio about how he came to make this work, and how the issues it addresses continue to have a brutal impact on American families. Their conversation follows below.
–Beverly Adams, The Estrellita Brodsky Curator of Latin American Art; Stuart Comer, The Lonti Ebers Chief Curator of Media and Performance
Nicole Fleetwood: Pepón, I’m so happy that we’re having this conversation.
Pepón Osorio: Likewise.
NF: I got to see Badge of Honor yesterday. I had heard about it for years. And it’s like nothing I could have imagined. Stuart [Comer] called me when it was acquired, and kept saying, “Do you know this work? You should see it.” Someone said, “It’s such a complete work of art.” And I thought that was a beautiful way of putting it. That it just feels so exquisite. And there are so many emotional layers to it. And I’m so excited to talk about it with you. But I want to start off by getting to know you a bit more.
PO: Thank you Nicole, I feel emotionally connected to the work today as if it was made yesterday. So, I grew up where I am right now, in Puerto Rico. I’m spending the holidays here. When I was 19, probably in 1975, the second year of college, I decided to leave. I really wanted to go somewhere else. And the “else” became the South Bronx. I had a friend of the family who I called aunt and moved with her to the South Bronx of New York City. And I have to be very honest with you, the reason why I left the island was because my mother and father, both of African descent, the goals that they had for me as a child were really determined by my race. And I wasn’t at ease with that. We were just a lower-class family with our middle-class aspirations. Both my mom and dad worked really hard, which is basically how I inherited my work ethic.
I left the island with the excuse of continuing my college education, basically a middle-class aspiration. I was admitted to Lehman College, City University, in the Bronx, and majored in sociology. After that, I got a job at the Human Resources Administration (BCW) in New York City, as a caseworker. I dealt with child abuse and neglect, where I saw and experienced a whole bunch of stuff. Moving to New York City as an Afro-Boricua opened my eyes to a new reality.
NF: And can I say you arrived in New York at a really important moment in terms of Puerto Rican and Black American activism?
NF: And I love the kind of ongoing love affair, aesthetically and politically, between Black Americans and Puerto Ricans. There’s been so much synergy, especially in the Bronx, in East Harlem, Lower East Side, and parts of Brooklyn. And so in the mid-’70s, there were all these art collectives forming around Puerto Rican identity and really direct-action organizations.
PO: Yes. Yes. So my aunt was an activist. Something that I had never heard of growing up. I lived with her for many years and I learned from her that there was a way to candlelight, there was a way to channel all of what I was feeling into a place that had the possibility of a transformation.
In my job as a caseworker, I visited many, many families, mostly in Manhattan, who were reported as cases of child abuse and neglect. I soon realized that my experience as a child had been very different than the cases I was investigating, which opened a sense of empathy to what growing up Black and Brown means to many in the city. My mother and father were both very concerned about racial discriminations on the island; they were trying to bypass racial tension and minimize the struggle by providing us access to things that other Black kids did not have. In retrospect, I realize I was a privileged child.
Fast forward to 1978: I met Merián Soto, a dancer and choreographer, and she opened up my whole life to movement, theater, performance. We started to collaborate and that changed my life. We created pieces at P.S.1, DTW, P.S. 122, mostly avant-garde works. We got married and had children. And that’s a nutshell of my life.
My experience as a caseworker became my artistic practice. All that I learned became my methodology—making real artwork with real experiences and people.
The ’80s for me was an era of syncretism; I started as an autodidactic artist and later I earned a master’s in art education at Teachers College, Columbia University, where I received some formal training in studio art. But, more importantly, I quit my job as caseworker with BCW. I learned that social work didn’t work. Its institutional agenda applied to people, mostly of color. We were trying to box families into institutional models, applying remedies that I knew weren’t sustainable. And so I left.
It’s with Merián that my curiosity with art began to bubble; performance and dance opened me to a different world. Which explains, Nicole, why there’s theatricalization in my work. We were making work that reflected our lived experience. My experience as a caseworker became my artistic practice. All that I learned in BCW became my methodology—making real artwork with real experiences and people.
In retrospect, I realize my mother and my father were humanists. My mom was a nurse, but she was also a baker, and she would bake and decorate cakes in the neighborhood, very elaborate cakes for quinceañeras, weddings, etc. My early artistic experience came from helping her, and my father as well. He worked in a warehouse, but he was always drawing, constructing, and fixing things around the house. Both were very artistic, yet becoming an artist was never discussed as an option for me. There’s a third person who I received a lot of knowledge and understanding of life from as a child. That was Juana, my caregiver while my mom and dad were working. She was extremely instrumental in my development as a spiritual being. Also a woman of African descent, very powerful, and knowledgeable. At that time, she really woke up my 360-degree view of life.
NF: The installation Badge of Honor feels so 360 degrees, so immersive. So you got into art-making through social work, and a desire to be active in your community...
PO: Right. So when I left social work with the Department of Human Services in New York, I began to develop my art practice on my own. This is mid-’80s. And I was just making work in total isolation. In fact, I had mentioned to both Beverly [Adams] and Stuart that I decided to work in isolation because I had gone to MoMA and seen an exhibition that made me so upset, and so pissed, that I promised that I would never step in a museum again.
NF: Wow. What was the exhibition?
PO: I cannot remember it. But I remember looking at one specific artist that was talking about Puerto Rican communities, and how he perceived the Puerto Rican experience. And I left completely disillusioned and upset. And so I went through a process of isolation from the mid-’80s until the early-’90s, where I just didn’t participate in anything in the visual art world.
Pepón Osorio. Badge of Honor. 1995
NF: The time period you’re talking about, in the mid-’90s, is when my cousins went to prison in Ohio. I talk about this in the preface of my book Marking Time. I was in college at that point, but most of my boy cousins were ending up in prison. And I literally write, “We had no words to express the kind of utter devastation, the despair, at the time it was happening because it was completely restructuring everyone’s life. Their intimate life, their family life, the community life.” I think the devastation was so...we have collective PTSD from this experience.
PO: You are right, that’s exactly what it felt like. Absolutely. And thank you for sharing because that was the same sentiment I believe they felt. It was hard to put into words. The entire blame was put on the person that was going into incarceration. And somehow we couldn’t decipher what was going on systematically. There was a group of maybe 20 young men and women, and in that group, 18 of them had a history of parents who were incarcerated. And that’s pretty alarming. And so we continued to talk about this. I decided to reorient my whole project. I went to different prisons with the slide projector and did exactly the same presentation and discussion. I wasn’t looking for a father and son, because I had no idea what I wanted to do. But I knew that somehow I had hit on the right topic, and I was in the right place.
NF: Was it easy for you to get access to the prisons?
PO: It was easy because at that time, I’d learned how to navigate the art world and I knew how the bureaucratic systems work. And so I went and I talked to the trustee of the Newark Museum, who had a lot of connections with the city and the bureaucracy of Newark. And I met a couple of imprisoned men, and the father in the video came forward after I finished a presentation and said, “I want to work with you.” It was an amazing opportunity and a great responsibility placed on my shoulders because I still had no idea what I wanted to do, yet I didn’t want to turn down his invitation. He told me, “I’m an artist. I do drawings.” This immediately reminded me of my father. Intuitively, I responded, “I would love to work with you. Do you have a family?” And he said, “Yeah, I have my wife and my son.” I said, “I would love to work with your son as well, both of you together.” And he said, “Yeah, we can do that. I can arrange that.” And that’s how it all started, in less than a minute of conversation. He went back to his line and walked away, and I began negotiating with the prison administration. He phoned his son, and the son was willing to participate in the project.
At that time, I’d become more interested in working with video. In fact, the video camera and tripod were the only things I was allowed to bring into the cell. I would go and see the father in the mornings, and I met the son after school at his home. The only materials we used were the tripod and camera that videographer Irene Sosa provided, and we used the father’s white sheet from his cell as the backdrop. I would say one or two words to them; the first was abuelo, which means grandfather. And the father just went on and on and on for about an hour talking about his father. The same afternoon, I went to the son’s house and played the raw footage from that morning’s session. And then the son started to respond to the father. I just listened, recording the responses with the camera at exactly the same level as the father. Irene and I remained silent; we couldn’t laugh, cry, or even breathe audibly.
NF: Yeah, it looks bigger than an average cell. I know that you’ve embellished the son’s room. Was it very decorative?
PO: No, no, no. It’s an amplification of what he had. With this installation, I wanted to reorient the way that we look at people in prison. I was looking at an intimate story; once you go into a prison, the world changes completely for the one that goes in as well as the family members that are left behind.
NF: In that room, you know, it’s all this pop culture teen stuff, but there’s something sacred about that space. And of course, juxtaposed against the sparsity of the father’s cell. Can you talk about shopping for things with the son, and what you were actually cultivating in making that room?
PO: Well, I was thinking about their family history, but I was also making this piece thinking about grief and love. That’s what I got from the family; it was a very sad process. From the son’s perspective, I was also thinking about the absence of the mother in the installation. You know, she was not absent in the family at all. In fact, she was the backbone of the entire family. But in the conversation, much of it, it’s about them, even though both of them give credit to her. After hearing the conversation over and over again, I wanted to bring a feminine element in this room, because the mother took care of every single thing that was in that room. Her presence was very palpable, even though she doesn’t appear. I wanted to include this very strong and quiet woman that made herself felt without words.
The floor speaks of the fragility of that time. One feels that if you step into that place, the mirrors will begin cracking and everything will begin falling apart. I was also interested in bringing in the family history through photographs. Those are actual family photographs. I wanted to present them in a way that talks about incarceration, but also makes us aware of the dehumanization of incarcerated people.
When I listen to the son, the spiritual, the physical, and the mental are in alignment all the time. The father was in a state of reflection all the time. Being incarcerated, the father definitely had time to think. All this thinking comes through the conversation. You’re standing there and you’re creating a triangular relationship with these two. There’s no way that you would not be complicit in that work.
NF: So I want to ask you about the title. In the ’90s, Black and Puerto Rican, Latinx kids are often being labeled super predators and described in mainstream media as glorifying prison. And I want to push back on that, because I feel like it’s actually society that’s reproducing this idea of intergenerational incarceration and poverty, not that people want to grow up and go to prison. They might feel it’s inevitable because they might feel like the limitations put on them have made it almost impossible for them to enter other kinds of institutional spaces. But I think that people have taken the title of your work, and have used that title as kind of a justification for an ideology around intergenerational incarceration and poverty.
PO: Right. The majority of the kids that I spoke to and whose parents were incarcerated, no one will mess around with in the neighborhood. They were respected because there was some sort of sympathy, empathy, and people felt that they needed to protect those kids, right? And so there’s this contradiction of the “Badge of Honor”; it’s some sort of a badge of honor that you feel, and a special privilege. It feels as if the neighbors are responding to your circumstances in a positive way, but also you don’t go around bragging about your status.
NF: Yeah, they’re looking out for you. Someone is looking out for you. So, can you tell us about the first installation at the storefront, and then how it’s moved since?
PO: Well, the work was originally shown in 1995 in two storefronts a few miles away from the neighborhood where I met the first group of kids that told me about incarceration in Newark. I think Broadway was the name of the street. It opened in the afternoon so families would be able to visit. And it was constantly packed with people who’d learned about the work through word of mouth. There were lots of discussions. At the time I really wanted to connect with local artists and bring them to the installation. I loved the idea of recontextualizing possibilities of what art can do outside museum walls. It was a challenge for museum staff to schedule and plan for an exhibition outside their norm and attend their opening in a neighborhood where audiences were a mix of locals and curious museumgoers.
Now I wonder what will happen 25 years from today, and having this work in an institution like MoMA. I’m also curious about what it will be like 50 years from now, and if this nation will ever get it together and figure out a way to end mass incarceration. I think it’s time for all of us to begin sharing responsibility around this.
NF: So my last question for you is, do you know what became of the family? Especially the father and son.
PO: I can't talk about it because I made a promise to the family that I would never, ever reveal anything about their personal lives. But yeah, they did get to see the work. Right now I’m trying to figure out a way to bring them to MoMA. Surprisingly enough, in 1996, at Ronald Feldman gallery in New York, the mother told me, “I love the idea of having this thing shown in a museum or in a gallery more so than the storefront.”
NF: And this is something, if you can share, totally fine. If you can’t... I’m wondering if, in agreeing to have MoMA acquire it, were there any kinds of expectations you have of MoMA in terms of programming or showing it or just in terms of engaging audiences?
PO: I think we are living a time when acquisitions go beyond collecting. MoMA has acquired a work that comes with great responsibility and should take this as an opportunity to expand its programming and commitment to revealing a reality that is not far removed from all of us. Mass incarceration continues to be an issue of grave concern. To many people, incarceration is a state of mind, but it’s actually a life-threatening experience to many others, including myself.
NF: We don’t all experience it equally. It’s unbelievably devastating for the families and communities that actually are the subject of such state torture.
PO: Right. You know, after we installed the piece at MoMA, I stepped back and began to reflect on the words: grief, trauma, love. These remain floating in the space where Badge of Honor is seen and heard. People feel these when they experience the work. There’s a tremendous, tremendous need in the United States, to begin to have a serious conversation around these issues. I think Badge of Honor invites you to think of art for its aesthetic values, but also challenges you to reckon with where you stand with respect to mass incarceration. I hope Badge of Honor moves viewers to become more involved in the conversation, that it serves as a place for reflection, just like prison has been for many incarcerated people.
NF: Thank you.
PO: Thank you. Thank you.
Pepón Osorio’s Badge of Honor is on view through March 6, 2022.
Pepón Osorio is an artist and the Laura H. Carnell Professor of Community Art at Tyler School of Art and Architecture, Temple University. He was a recipient of a MacArthur fellowship in 1999. His work Badge of Honor is currently on view at MoMA.
Nicole R. Fleetwood is the James Weldon Johnson Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication in the Steinhardt School at New York University. She is the author of Marking Time: Art in the Era of Mass Incarceration (2020) and the curator of the eponymous traveling exhibition, which debuted at MoMA PS1 in 2020. She was a recipient of a MacArthur fellowship in 2021.
Beverly Adams on Pepón Osorio’s Badge of Honor
Osorio’s installation confronts the carceral state’s disproportionate impact on families of color.
Jan 14, 2022
The Voices of Marking Time
Nicole Fleetwood speaks with four artists featured in MoMA PS1’s new exhibition.
Nicole Fleetwood, Isabel Custodio, Hanna Girma
Nov 16, 2020