JACKIE BLACK CONSIDERS THE WIDER ISSUES OF MORALITY, JUSTICE AND INNOCENCE, RECREATING THE LAST MEALS OF THOSE SUBJECTED TO CAPITAL PUNISHMENT IN TEXAS.
Jackie Black’s photographs examine the ambiguity of mortality in American culture. On display at the Parrish Art Museum, New York, Last Meal is the artist’s commentary on capital punishment. A series of powerful 12 x 12-inch images recreate the last meals and statements of 23 individuals who were tried, convicted and executed in Texas under capital punishment between 1984 and 2001. At first glance, they read as staged food photos on a glossy diner menu. However, suspended against stark black backgrounds in a gallery setting – with no suggestion of social or human interaction – the images are transformed into macabre still lifes. Savannah Petrick, Curatorial Assistant and Publications Coordinator, discusses Black’s work in the context of the USA today – in a country that has had 170 exonerations since 1973, and 1,522 executions since 1976.
A: By 2019, 106 countries had abolished the death penalty, but in 2020, 53 countries still practice capital punishment. What role does it play in the USA today? SP: Prior to the election of Donald Trump, it seemed the USA was on its way to becoming a less punitive nation; in 2016, the Pew Research Center reported that public support of the death penalty had fallen to 49% – the lowest it has been since the 1970s. Then, during the 2016 election – alongside Trump’s “tough on crime” campaign – all three states with death penalty referendums voted in favour of capital punishment: California and Oklahoma voted to keep it, and Nebraska voted to reinstate it (figures taken from Jackie Wang’s Carceral Capitalism, 2018). More concerning is the recent re-
sumption of federal executions: on 14 July 2020, the Justice Department executed death row prisoner Daniel Lewis Lee via lethal injection, ending a 17-year informal moratorium on federal capital murder. Months into the current movement for social and racial justice – against police brutality and state-sanctioned violence – the issue remains largely absent from public discourse. In the USA, blackness is often conflated with guilt and criminality. Our country is finally acknowledging this fact and attempting to dismantle the systems that enable it. This is a good thing, but it’s also where the ambiguity of mortality comes into play. The anger propelling the Black Lives Matter movement is often only ignited when there’s a precondition of innocence: Ahmaud Arbery was out for a jog, Breonna Taylor was asleep in her home, Botham Jean was having ice cream on his couch, Stephon Clark was standing in his grandmother’s backyard, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice was playing in a park. If the victim isn’t totally “innocent” (a.k.a. non-threatening), then it’s the discord between the severity of the punishment – death – and the pettiness of the alleged crime, be it selling loose cigarettes or paying with a counterfeit bill, that garners a public reaction. A: How does the Last Meal series interact with this history? SP: Prison abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore writes: “Whilst saving anyone is a good thing to do, to try to assert innocence as a key political strategy is to turn a blind eye to the system and how it works. [The problem] is not to figure out how to determine or prove the innocence of certain individuals, but to attack the general system through which