Adrienne Skye Roberts: Artist, Activist, Advocate

Adrienne Skye Roberts’ (MA Visual and Critical Studies 2009) installation titled It Is Our Duty to Fight, It Is Our Duty to Win / We Must Love Each Other and Protect Each Other / We Have Nothing to Loose But Our Chains (2013), at San Francisco’s Root Division gallery, depicted the following words on a sign that rested against a white wall:

“To be treated like everybody else.”

Hand painted in simple black lettering on a white picketing sign, it is easy to imagine these words chanted with pride, determination, and defiance during a political march.

Five other similar signs featured different statements and demands, such as “The hope to see my children again.” The people who spoke these words did not always have the freedom to practice the civil right of protesting.

In fact, the work reflects the answers of previously incarcerated women whom Roberts asked, “How did you survive prison?” “What do you need to survive now that you are out?” “And what does a world without mass incarceration look like?”

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Grassroots Activism

Roberts works side by side with members of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) to produce her art. CCWP is a grassroots organization led by and created for current and previously incarcerated women and transgender people, and includes activists like Roberts, who do organizing and advocacy work.

Prisoners’ rights activism highlights issues such as the rise of for-profit incarcerating institutions, overcrowding, deplorable health care, and the ongoing expansion of the prison system.

CCWP also foregrounds how gender difference and race affects incarcerated populations.

Visual and Critical Studies Alumni Award

In April 2014, Roberts received the first-ever CCA Visual and Critical Studies Alumni Award in honor of her exemplary commitment to social justice and interdisciplinarity, as demonstrated by her activism-oriented art practice.

This new annual award, created by the 2014 Visual and Critical Studies cohort, celebrates the achievements of earlier students from the program.

Since graduation, Roberts has worked as an educator, a freelance writer (published in Art Practical, Rumpus, and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s blog, Open Space), an independent curator, and a practicing artist, all while sustaining her organizing work with CCWP.

Read Open Space articles by the artist »

Roberts started at CCA after completing a bachelor’s degree in feminist studies and studio art from University of California, Santa Cruz. She envisioned being an academic/activist/artist.

While writing her CCA thesis, however, her experiences in activism rose to the fore. Her research topic was the politics of race in post-Katrina New Orleans, focusing on white volunteers who traveled to help rebuild the city; she was one such volunteer herself.

“The thesis felt like it was more for and about the people I was working with, rather than for theorists or academics,” she says. It’s a sentiment that has characterized all of her subsequent endeavors.

Advocacy for Incarcerated Women

After CCA, Roberts worked primarily as an advocate for incarcerated people. During this time, she says, “There was no room for art. I learned that sometimes art is not the answer.”

She took a three-year hiatus from making art before wondering how to reshape her creative practice to parallel her political work. “It was clear to me that the work I want to do needs to be accountable to communities outside of artistic and academic institutions.”

She reconfigured her practice as an artist and advocate to “amplify the voices of people inside. In CCWP, we prioritize and centralize the people most directly impacted by the system.

“I see my role as that of a sound system. Prisons keep people separated. So, unless there is a conscious intention to bring these stories out, people outside aren’t going to hear them. The people inside can’t leave, but their stories can.”

A Living Chance

Her most recent project, A Living Chance: Storytelling to End Life Without Parole, which recently exceeded its funding goal on the crowdsourcing website IndieGoGo, takes the form of a multimedia storytelling platform.

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It will include an interactive website, audio recordings, and a print publication compiling stories about people sentenced to life without parole (LWOP).

LWOP is often considered a lesser sentence than the death penalty, although Roberts explains that many factors impacting LWOP sentences are not accounted for, such as evidence of histories of abuse.

The prevalence of survivors of abuse among people sentenced to LWOP in women’s prisons is significant, but frequently unacknowledged in courtrooms.

And those sentenced to LWOP do not receive free legal support, unlike people sentenced to the death penalty. LWOP is unlikely to change during a prisoner’s life, and thus is often overlooked as a critical topic in prisoners’ rights movements.

“Everyone in prison is incredibly silenced, and the LWOP population is even more so because of the lack of resources provided to them. They are in many ways a nameless and faceless population. They have no chance to get out -- with the exception of appeals or commutations, which are extremely slim-chanced. A Living Chance is trying to expose and change this.

“I’m interested in framing this for general public education, as well as for arts-specific audiences. If this project enters the space of a gallery, and if it politicizes people who may not already be inclined that way, then that’s amazing.

“However,” she continues, “I’m not looking to the art world to validate this work. It’s my hope that this project will be used by prisoners’ rights organizers to educate themselves and draw connections between LWOP and other issues.

“The real marker of success will be if the storytelling and visual aspects are able to push our goals forward, and if the work allows our members inside to feel like their voices are traveling.”  

Why storytelling?

“You can read as many statistics as you want about a certain topic, but when you hear someone’s story, someone’s lived experience and the story behind incarceration, you pay attention. You can be moved.”

Emily Holmes is an alumna of the Graduate Program in Visual and Critical Studies. She graduate in 2014 and currently works and writes for Art Practical, a Bay Area art publication.