The exhibition consists of over 500 observational drawings made over the course of four years of Cohen’s work, teaching and performing on Riker’s, as well as a selection of drawings made in collaboration with young inmates. There are no photos taken of the inmates during their incarceration other than their mug shot. No cameras are allowed onto the island. This exhibition at the Queens Museum is the first public showing of these images.
Jacob Cohen is a Brooklyn-based experimental cellist, visual artist, and educator. Since 2014, he has been working with adolescents and young adults incarcerated on Rikers Island. He brings his cello directly to the housing units, often playing for those that have received infractions for violent behavior while there. After about a year he started to draw portraits of them and their surroundings. At first they were very basic, but over time complexity and nuance began to develop and the drawings began to capture something deeply personal about the subjects, and revealing of the system in which they are ensnared. These images are of youth, ages 16-21, currently incarcerated and awaiting sentencing.
Dispatches from the Ghost Ship is dedicated to our dear friend and mentor Fay Chiang.
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Artist Statement by Jacob Cohen:
When I first began working with the adolescents and young adults detained on Rikers Island I was playing the cello for them. They politely listened to my improvisational music and then requested for me to play Hip Hop beats consisting of banging on the body of the cello and plucking or strumming the strings to the rhythm. The kids spontaneously began to freestyle, dance, laugh and sing to the live music. Sometimes when I arrived the kids were engaged in some other activity so I would sketch what was happening in an attempt to document my experiences in the jail. The kids took notice and began to be proud of the images of themselves they saw reflected in my sketches. They began to pose for the drawings and asking me to draw them individually or with their peers. The officers saw what was happening and asked for portraits of their own. As my drawing style improved the desirability of my drawings increased. The pressure to make a drawing that was an accurate representation and that the participant could be proud of is what fueled the drawings. I put together 20-page booklets of the drawings with a caption for each that would tell some detail about my interaction with the kid, and before long everybody was asking when I was going to make a new book. They wanted to be in the book and be seen. I always let the kids tag their drawings and write whatever they want around their image. I make many copies of the drawings for them to send to their families, friends and loved ones.
While I have been working at Rikers they have been implementing various reforms including the recent closing of the George Motchan Detention Center (GMDC). Many of these drawings were done in GMDC and document the people that were detained in that building and some of their transitions. Other drawings were done in the Robert N. Davoren Complex and the Rose M. Singer Center for women. Some of the people depicted have been released, some are now in prisons throughout the state, and a few have passed away. Many are still being detained and awaiting trial or plea deals. The vast majority cannot afford bail or effective counsel.
This project grew out of the enthusiasm and encouragement of the kids I encountered on Rikers Island. I always was placed into units with kids with the most severe behavioral issues and I was able to win over their trust with the drawings. Providing them a service of value made them seek out my program, and by following through and consistently showing up for four years my reputation throughout the different facilities grew. I am the only person carrying a cello on my back throughout the facilities so my nickname “Cello” seemed natural. This project has always been centered on the youth, but it is important for people not directly affected by the prison industrial complex to get a glimpse into life on Rikers Island – the daily reality of thousands of our fellow New Yorkers.