Pop-Up Art Exhibit Highlights the Consequences of Failed Drug Policy in the US and Abroad

A new kind of museum opened last week in NYC. Not like The Met or MOMA, this one was for 3 days only, but no less significant. The Museum of Drug Policy used art as a lens to examine the world drug problem. Coinciding with the United Nations General Assembly’s Special Session (UNGASS) on the world drug problem, the Museum brought together artists, activists, entertainers and scholars to explore the human and social costs of drug policies across the globe. I was lucky enough to attend.

“Nerdland Forever: Live With Melissa Harris ­Perry” broadcasted live from the space featuring guests like Piper Kerman of Orange is the New Black, Glenn Martin from Just Leadership USA, Vivian Nixon of the College and Community Fellowship, and Activist Scholar Dr. Carl Hart of Columbia University. Attendees saw a screening of the new feature-­length documentary, Cartel Land, a film that sheds light on the Mexican drug war. Spoken word poetry powerfully recited by hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons and Mexican poet Javier Sicilia put into words feelings that would otherwise go unspoken.

70 works of international art, special installations and live musical performances were featured and immersed viewers.  Exhibits included paintings and photographs, as well as myriad of drug-related artifacts including a board game based on Nancy Reagan’s “Just say no” campaign and a model of a Colombian Coca farmer’s hut.  Internationally renowned artist Hank Willis Thomas and John Jay professor Baz Dreisinger, created a chilling installation of letters from prisoners all over the world. The handwritten letters and art that covered the walls and floor surrounding a life-sized replica of an actual cell were haunting. The installation depicts the cruelty and isolation of solitary confinement.

Other artistic works included a map of the availability of painkillers throughout the world, illustrated with tiny red pills, banners of hand embroidered handkerchiefs threaded overhead with the names of people “disappeared” in Mexico, as well as a massive and intricate mural created by artist Jesse Krimes. Produced on the inside while serving a federal prison sentence, Krimes created the mural by using newspaper clippings and hair gel to transfer images on to contraband prison sheets, which he then smuggled out through the mail piece by piece and only saw united after his release.  The result, Apokaluptein: 16389067 provides a compelling critique of the commodity culture that cultivates criminal behavior as well as the broken systems that punish transgression instead of working towards reform.

Visitors were invited to share their personal stories inside the museum’s Truth Booth, while another particularly poignant installation encouraged visitors to share photos and messages on a Living Wall made from the names of loved ones who have been impacted by the war on drugs.

Though the museum was temporary, it made a lasting impression on me.