The Right to Intimacy | Raphaela Rosella | Granta

The Right to Intimacy

Raphaela Rosella & Nicole R. Fleetwood

In their effort to explore how personal archives function within this ongoing installation, the co-creators made the multi-channel video installation HOMEtruths, combining phone recordings from prison, super 16mm film and images captured from Facebook and Snapchat accounts. ‘Home’ is a fraught concept for the dispossessed and imprisoned – those whom settler-colonial states attempt to eradicate – and so the installation is ephemeral and evocative, not of specific locations but of states of non-being and non-belonging.

Juxtaposed are two images of a young woman. In one she poses at a three-quarter angle, sitting consciously for the camera in dark light with a device tucked inside her bra. In the other she floats in muddy water, her hair a puffing cloud.

The tender and mighty practices of women’s love and commitment to each other resonate through this evolving archive, as does the expanding reach of the carceral state. Rosella acknowledges that she did not set out to do work on incarceration, but the prison industrial complex and punitive governance more broadly find their way into so many aspects of the lives of poor, single and Indigenous women that it became unavoidable. A co-created archive on the lives of young and poor mothers is also an exploration of criminalization and the state violence waged against them, currently reflected in their series You’ll know it when you feel it.

Included in the series are letters from prison, some written by incarcerated mothers to their babies. There is an emotional tenor of effusiveness in letters from prison. They overflow with desire and longing. The word ‘love’ is pronounced repeatedly, alongside hearts and smiling faces, handwritten emojis, emotive doodles.

Here time is not linear, but cyclical, though this might seem paradoxical given that many of the women are sentenced to hard time. What I mean is that Rosella’s projects make intergenerational connections that interweave the past, present and a future potential. A four-set of institutional photos of infant twins nestled together – presumably Rosella and her sister – appear near another four-set of photographs of a newborn wrapped in a blue crocheted blanket. In other photos, a young boy raises his head to the ceiling and wails. The partial nude bodies of a mother and young child showering together feel off limits; the child looks out from the shower. The mother’s back is to the camera.

You’ll know it when you feel it unfolds an entanglement of poverty, hyper-criminalization, drugs, pregnancy, gendering and communal mothering. Rosella says, ‘I was looking at motherhood, and what was expected for us as young women growing up in low socio-economic communities. And I started realizing that the project was about the cyclical nature of poverty and the burden of low expectations. I never imagined my girlfriends would be incarcerated. Growing up, it was usually our boyfriends who were locked up. Just like I never imagined they would be incarcerated, I never intended to document our lived experiences across carceral divides, but here we are.’

Growing bellies and the scarred bodies of pregnant moms – Rosella’s co-creators – appear throughout the archive. Babies are signs of hope for mothers struggling with addiction and criminalization. The mothering bodies appear as transformative nurturing embodiment, as well as also being the subjects of criminalization and state control. Drugs alter a feel or a state of being. They also cause states of suspicion and surveillance, hypervigilance and paranoia.

Amid this beauty and devastation, this endurance and love, the state’s narrative intrudes through language that frames the movement and possibilities of the women who are the subjects/subjugated: ‘Instructions to plead not guilty’ and ‘Release Certificate’. Co-creators respond to their carceral biography in turn by taking state documents and culling them, revising them and amending them for other narratives.

One of her collaborators, Tammara, who is now deceased, began redacting her prison documents and other state forms that recorded the forced removal of her children from her care. Tammara reveals the errors and contradictions found within her records. Her redactions obscure key details, turning bureaucratic forms into art objects, acting perhaps as a way of reclaiming the privacy and autonomy stripped from her by state authorities.

You’ll know it when you feel it documents the interminable wait under penal time. One collaborator journals the daily grind of nowhere to go and nothing to do while in rehab:

Day 3

Was going to leave at
Lunch then went to
my bed and fell
asleep till 7:30pm
Really want to leave
But no where to go ☹

These photographic and textual interventions are akin to the artistic collaboration between American artist Titus Kaphar and American poet Reginald Dwayne Betts, whose exhibition Redaction at MoMA PS1 in 2019 incorporated portraits of criminalized people and redacted legal documents that tethered them to the state. These practices demonstrate a growing transnational awareness of the dominance of punitive governance as a way of life in settler colonial states, and how interventions like the work of Rosella and her co-creators point toward the possibility of art facilitating practices and communities of resistance.

Rosella and her co-creators curate an archive of pain, of endurance, of love and belonging, of alienation and disconnection. Amid the cascading array of image/text in You’ll know it when you feel it is a modest school photo of a young Rosella. She looks out in a way that seems to embody her ongoing collaborations, inquiring, with an awareness of what it means to be shaped by institutional narratives and an insistence to be recognized beyond those limitations. This insistence and spirit of inquiry guide her work, and the way she continues to honor the presence of women in her intimate life.

Nicole R. Fleetwood

Raphaela Rosella

Raphaela Rosella is an Australian artist working across socially engaged art and long-form documentary practice. Her work has featured at the Photoquai Photo Biennale and the Noorderlicht Photo Festival. ‘The Right to Intimacy’ was co-created by Rosella alongside Dayannah, Gillianne, Kayla, Laurinda, Mimi, Nunjul, Rowrow, Tammara, Tricia and their families.

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Nicole R. Fleetwood

Nicole R. Fleetwood is a writer, curator and the James Weldon Johnson Professor at NYU. She is a MacArthur Fellow and the author and curator of Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration.

Photograph © John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

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