Julie Mehretu Painting Could Raise $4M for Mass Incarceration Reform

The United States is the world leader in incarceration, with 2.3 million people locked up in state and federal jails, juvenile correctional facilities, and immigration detention centers. Most imprisoned individuals are charged with misdemeanors or non-criminal violations, and a disproportionate fraction of them are Black.

These staggering numbers and an increased awareness of the horrors of confinement have galvanized artists to take a stand against mass incarceration. Among them is painter Julie Mehretu, who is donating all the proceeds from a sale of her work “Dissident Score” (2019-2021), which is expected to fetch between $3 and $4 million, to the Art for Justice Fund. The six-year initiative, a self-described “de-carceration fund,” was founded by Agnes Gund in 2017 to redress inequalities in the criminal justice system and has disbursed $84 million to more than 200 artists, activists, and organizations so far.

“Mass incarceration, solitary confinement, youth imprisonment, and putting kids in prison for life without parole are sins of our society, slavery in another form,” Mehretu said. “It is way past time for a collective reimagining of crime and punishment as we know it.”

“Dissident Score,” a nine-by-ten-foot canvas, is typical of Mehretu’s large-scale, multi-layered compositions based on abstracted photographs. The Ethiopian-American artist frequently addresses systems of captivity in her calligraphic paintings, drawing on source images of refugee camps and military fortifications among other paradigmatic visuals of oppression.

Mehretu’s painting will be unveiled at 8pm EST tonight, May 26, during a free and open virtual event hosted by Art for Justice, featuring a performance by Rhiannon Giddens and the participation of other artists and advocates. The work will be offered in a single-lot auction on Artsy with an opening bid of $2,600,000.

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