Review: Safe-Keeping – An Exploration of Mass Incarceration and the Black Family at The CMPLX

Lawrence Matthews, It Can Happen to Anyone, 2019, photograph. Photo courtesy of the author.

By Pete Hoffecker Mejía


Lawrence Matthews, It Can Happen to Anyone, 2019, photograph. Photo courtesy of the author.


The CMPLX in Memphis, Tennessee, is fast becoming a spot for exhibitions that consistently challenge and provoke the viewer. Operated by The Collective (CLTV), this group of Black artists and culture workers have utilized their combined energies to create a space for the uplifting of critical voices that reflect their communities. Thus far the exhibitions have been centered on critical aspects of the contemporary social and political landscape, especially as they pertain to peoples of color. These shows use visual language to speak of injustice and inequality, often in engaging and compelling ways.


The CMPLX’s recent exhibition, Safe-Keeping – An Exploration of Mass Incarceration and The Black Family, is no exception. Curated by Dame Smith, the show includes paintings, sculpture, photography and video. The narratives employed by this group of artists – Kevin Brooks, Jamin Carter, Coriana Close, Amber George, Phillip Jackson, Desmond Lewis, Lawrence Matthews, Keith Merritt, Lester Merriweather, Angela Myers, Thaxton A. Waters, and Nubia Yasin – focus upon the effects of mass incarceration on Black families and communities. The work addresses the continuing reality of state-sponsored oppression and the criminalization of people of color.


The strategies used by the artists to address these issues are strikingly diverse. In Kevin Brooks’ Last Day, viewers are confronted with a wall-mounted TV playing a film about a Black man wrongfully accused of a crime, conveying the impact this has upon his relationship with his wife and their decision to keep the situation from their daughter. With cinematic production values and solid acting from the film’s cast, the work supports the exhibition, making its emotional aspect – the devastation wrought by assumptions of criminality – even more palpable. The choice to have the audio of the film accessible only through a corded telephone recalls the way one communicates with the outside world when incarcerated, giving the work added depth and the viewer an opportunity for tactile participation.



Framing Brooks’s video work are four photographs from artist and University of Memphis Professor Coriana Close. Close presents an overlay of aerial landscapes in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina upon mugshots of incarcerated Black men. This conflation of environmental concerns with state-sanctioned violence on Black bodies forces the viewer to consider how our treatment of these seemingly disparate issues may be connected. Close’s work leads the viewer to a space where it is possible to contemplate the analogous relationship between our various systems of control.


This strategy of highlighting analogies and contrasts to elicit new understanding is likewise employed by artist Lester Merriweather. In Merriweather’s central work in Safe-Keeping, we see a replay of scenes from a violent video game, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. In the game the Black male character is seen stealing a police car, shooting police officers, and creating general mayhem in an urban environment. The work implores the viewer to consider how deeply entrenched and heavily commodified the criminalized representation of the African American community has become and to what effect that criminalized representation continues to feed the disproportionate incarceration of Black people.


Artist Lawrence Matthews’ photographic works in the exhibition pair slogans from the campaign to end the current opioid epidemic with imagery from the crack epidemic. Text taken from a billboard about opioid abuse stating “It can happen to anyone” is overlaid upon an image of the police arresting Black men and women; the latter image is culled from 80s-era crack raids in Black communities. This combination puts a spotlight on the different ways the impacted communities are portrayed and the disparities in responses these two epidemics are given. The central focus of the work is the vastly different empathy responses these widespread, systemic drug problems elicit from police and the American public.


Safe-Keeping is a large group show, thus it is not feasible to describe each artist’s work in detail within the scope of this review. However, other notable entries in the exhibition are works by Amber George, Desmond Lewis and Nubia Yasin. I strongly suggest seeking out the artworks of these emerging artists. Although the approach and subject matter each artist employs is different, the works speak with a unified voice in this exhibition. The carefully curated pieces give the viewer ample opportunity to contemplate the effects that mass incarceration and the War on Drugs has had upon the Black Community.


The Safe-Keeping exhibition was on display at The CMPLX from April 20th, 2019 to June 20th, 2019 at 2234 Lamar Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee.



Pete Hoffecker Mejía is an artist and educator.