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City Acquires Artwork by Wrongfully Convicted Artist


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By Jorge Casuso

March 8, 2024 -- A quilt created by a Los Angeles-based artist who spent 42 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit has been acquired by the City of Santa Monica’s Art Bank.

The piece, titled "In Memoriam of an Ashanti Warrior," was created by Gary Tyler, the winner of this year’s Frieze Los Angeles Impact Prize, which recognizes artists who have made a significant impact on society through art.

Gary Tyler poses with quilt acquired by the City
Gary Tyler poses with "In Memoriam of an Ashanti Warrior," (Courtesy City of Santa Monica)

The acquisition of Tyler's artwork stems from an annual partnership between Frieze and Santa Monica "to grow the city’s public Art Bank collection with work made by an artist based in Southern California," City officials said.

It was chosen by a jury composed of Frieze Director Christine Messineo, City Arts Commissioner Laurie Yehia and Amanda Sroka, senior curator for the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

"The jurors were drawn to the work’s strength and clarity of vision, born of Tyler’s personal transformation story," said Yehia.

"We were engaged by the colorful and graphic yet gracefully quilted imagery, conveying a sense of empowerment and hope -- and the power of art -- within the context of incarceration," Yehia said.

Tyler was 17 in 1975, when he was convicted of the murder of a 13-year-old White boy after the group of Black students Tyler was with was attacked during a bus ride home from school in St. Charles Louisiana.

Witnesses testified that the gunshot that killed the boy was fired from outside the bus, but an all-White jury found Tyler guilty of first-degree murder, and he was sentenced to death by electrocution, according to news reports.

A grassroots movement to free Tyler -- which included a speech by Civil Rights icon Rosa Parks during a rally in 1976 -- and several appeals in court failed to secure his release.

Tyler's sentence was commuted in 2016 after he entered a technical guilty plea, and he was released at age 57.

While in prison, Tyler learned traditional fabric quilting techniques while working in a prison hospice for terminally ill inmates.

“No matter where you’re at, that talent has a way of flourishing,” he told ARTnews last month. “There’s something good that could come out of prison, despite what an individual went to prison for, whether they’re innocent or guilty.”

"In Memoriam of an Ashanti Warrior" commemorates a warrior of the Ashanti Empire, an Akan state that lasted from 1701 to 1901 in what is now modern-day Ghana.

Known for its military prowess and sophisticated culture, the empire expanded across large parts of sub-Saharan Africa before it was dissolved in 1901 and became a British crown colony.

Jenny Rogers, director of the City's Recreation and Arts Department, said Tyler's work "addresses the US carceral system’s inequities."

"Drawing on his own experience of wrongful incarceration, the artist frequently portrays himself and individuals encountered at Angola State Penitentiary to illuminate the complexity of the prison experience," Rogers said.

This year, the Impact Prize -- launched with Endeavor Impact and realized in partnership with The Center for Art and Advocacy -- partnered with the Right of Return Fellowship which supports and mentors formerly incarcerated artists.

“These are artists who have lost decades and decades of their life but are in the best position to be able to talk about that experience, but to do so through a very elevated art form,” the group's co-founder, artist Jesse Krimes, told ARTnews.

As the winner of the Impact Prize, Tyler received a $25,000 prize and presented a booth during Frieze Week in Santa Monica, which took place from February 29 to March 3 at the Santa Monica Airport.

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