A Dispatch from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University
I found liberation in sharing my story. My performances challenge those who encounter the orange jumpsuit to address their own prejudices toward people who are or have been incarcerated.
—Sherrill Roland, creator of the Jumpsuit Project
CDS editor’s note: Sherrill Roland is a Post-MFA Fellow in the Documentary Diversity Project (DDP), a three-year pilot at the Center for Documentary Studies to build pathways for more people of color to engage with the documentary arts and to become nonfiction storytellers, gatekeepers, and critical consumers. Post-MFA Fellows and Emerging Documentary Artists work with faculty, staff, and visiting artists to expand their skills and portfolios during extended paid residencies while also joining in classes and fieldwork projects. The pilot is made possible in part by the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust. Here, DDP affiliated artist Amber Delgado describes a trip with Roland to participate in a new element of his acclaimed project around issues related to incarceration.
This April, members of the Documentary Diversity Project headed to Washington, D.C., to document our DDP colleague Sherrill Roland and his interactive performance piece, the Jumpsuit Project. Sherrill was wrongfully incarcerated during the first year of his MFA program at the University of North Carolina Greensboro (UNC-G) and spent nearly eleven months in a Washington, D.C., prison. Ultimately, he was exonerated, returned to school, and received his degree. While he was physically able to return to the life he previously lived, the weight and trauma of his experiences inevitably shifted how he saw and navigated the world. For his MFA thesis project, Sherrill decided to wear an orange jumpsuit for one year, to confront and challenge concepts of race, incarceration, and innocence.
The work has grown and evolved, and since graduating from UNC-G (wearing the orange jumpsuit underneath his cap and gown), Sherrill has been invited to talk about and share the Jumpsuit Project in museums, art galleries, and law schools across the country. His performance piece involves taping off a 6’x 9’ rectangular box that represents the size of his cell at the D.C. Central Detention Facility, donning an orange jumpsuit, and standing in the box for hours, talking with whomever chooses to “enter.” The box is a reciprocal space, with feelings of vulnerability and opportunities for healing in play for both artist and participant. Questions often center around Sherrill’s experience leading up to and including his incarceration—how he coped with his anger, for instance. A mother who entered the space later shared with Sherrill how important it was to hear his perspective—her son is currently in prison, and she hesitates to ask about what he’s feeling in too much detail. Even for participants with no direct link to the prison system, this space and Sherrill’s story provoke conversation around the systemic structures implicated in mass incarceration in the U.S.
While he has performed the Jumpsuit Project nationwide, Sherrill had not been asked to share it in a venue in Washington, D.C., until the fall of 2018, when the Maria and Alberto de la Cruz Art Gallery at Georgetown University invited him for several gallery events in partnership with the school’s Prisons and Justice Initiative. As this was his first opportunity to share the Jumpsuit Project in the city where he was wrongfully incarcerated, he created a new element of the performance—a six-mile walk from the prison in which he was held in Southeast Washington to the de la Cruz Gallery in Georgetown, with a film crew documenting the journey. Members of the DDP family would constitute his crew: Emerging Documentary Artists Brittany Barbee, Steven Cheek, Paul Newman, and Greg Weaver II, program coordinator William Page and creative director Courtney Reid-Eaton, CDS operations manager Quadiriah McCullough, 2017–18 CDS exhibitions intern Ambria McNeill, and myself, the 2018–19 exhibitions intern. Whitney Baker and Mara Guevarra (CDS communications) and John Biewen, producer of the CDS podcast Scene on Radio, would accompany us and provide additional support.
We are Black people that exist in community with one another at a predominantly white institution.
Although we’d been learning about his work since Sherrill first arrived at CDS in September 2018, our D.C. journey with him would be the first chance for us to both witness and experience the Jumpsuit Project firsthand. Multiple production meetings involved discussions about logistics and causes for concern in taking this on—our varying degrees of filmmaking experience, the fact that most of us had never been to D.C., changing weather forecasts, and, of course, the major concern for our and Sherrill’s safety.
On the morning of April 11, we met Sherrill at the metro station closest to the prison. He went to change into the orange jumpsuit as we all positioned and prepped our equipment. When he returned, he had the jumpsuit halfway on, with the top part resting around his waist. The way he’d positioned the suit made us all realize the weight that fully putting on the jumpsuit had for him—though this is a project and experience he’s been sharing for four years now, there’s still trauma and pain to be worked through in this process. In that fragment of time before we headed down our six-mile route, seeing us all together with our equipment and Sherrill in his suit, it sunk in for all of us. We’re here not only to serve as documentarians, but to offer safety, protection, and community to get us through what lay ahead. To a degree, this is our everyday experience of existing together within white spaces.
For all our uncertainties and worries about what could go wrong, during the three hours of the walk we worked somehow as if we were choreographed, despite having done just two practice runs. We communicated and switched out equipment and batteries, rotated between people recording video and shooting still images; the weather was windy and cold in the beginning but sunny the rest of the time. Most important of all, we stayed safe—no issues with police and only a couple of snarky remarks from bystanders, with encouraging words and waves from others. Sherrill had put out an invitation on social media for those interested in joining him for the part of the walk on the National Mall. As people came, they walked alongside him and asked questions, just as if he were in the gallery.
As we approached our final destination, tired and sweaty in the bright sun, I believe we all felt relief, excitement, and surprise. I especially had counted on having to pull out the forms in our press passes from the directors of the institutions involved proving we had permission for the walk. Yet as we opened the doors of the Georgetown gallery and I watched Sherrill enter on my display screen, it made sense. From beginning to end, this production went smoothly because of who we are together. Had we been complete strangers, meeting for the first time to do the job as freelancers, it might not have been so easy. The work was intense, and for some it was the first time being part of a film crew, but ultimately, technical skills didn’t matter. We heard and saw each other in ways that can’t be taught but that are earned and built over time and through trust and mutual respect.
During our time at the Center for Documentary Studies, the ways we have moved together through difficult spaces, the ways we have shown up for one another, give us strength to take on the world.
“Dispatches from the CDS” is part of our weekly story series, The By and By.
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