The multidisciplinary artist Shaun Leonardo began exploring the social and psychological effects of mass incarceration in the US in response to the planned 2026 closure of the Rikers Island prison complex, New York’s infamously violent and overcrowded jail located between the Bronx and Queens. Best known for his performance works investigating sports and masculinity, the second iteration of Primitive Games—the artist’s resulting movement-based performance that explores past prison trauma and the potential for reform through actions inspired by dance, traditional football and gladiatorial combat—was to debut this spring as part of a fellowship with the socially engaged art non-profit organisation A Blade of Grass, before it was delayed by the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic.
As the virus spread swiftly throughout the prison complex, prompting the Wall Street Journal to declare Rikers one of the “most-infected workplaces in the US” after inmates and officers began dying, Leonardo quickly retooled his project to actively lobby for inmate release programmes during the pandemic.
“We know that prisons just don’t work. They don’t work as a structure, they don’t work as a philosophy, and there are scholars, there are abolitionists, there are writers, there are stakeholders that are doing an incredible job of communicating that distinction, that failure, in society and in the systems we uphold,” Leonardo says....