- The Wildest Show in the SouthThe Politics and Poetics of the Angola Prison Rodeo and Inmate Arts Festival
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When I entered the grounds of Louisiana State Penitentiary, I saw a maze of rawhide belts and purses, paintings reminiscent of a back aisle thrift store, and elaborate wooden objects that evoked the country crafts of my southern childhood. I passed a robust woman sniffing a perfumed wooden rose with "Mother" etched in lavish script on its heart-shaped stand. Above her hung a copied print of John Wayne next to Tupac Shakur. Brightly airbrushed bible covers praised the Lord in oversized letters. Larger-than-life cartoon characters decorated heavily-shellacked furniture. Men with leather faces and white coats hovered near the crafts and sat amidst the crowds visiting Angola. Some talked with abandon; others hung back and smoked cigarettes, stealing glances at the women who passed.
This was my first trip to Louisiana State Penitentiary in West Feliciana Parish, fifty-five miles northwest of Baton Rouge. The prison, better known as Angola, sits on former plantation land named for the country from which its slaves came. In 1880, former Confederate major Samuel James bought the Angola plantation with three others and ran it with convicts leased to him from the state of Louisiana. Under James and, later, the state—to whom he sold the plantation in 1901—Angola became infamous as a site of brutality and death.1 After a long and troubled history, the prison is today considered a model prison, not least because of its popular Angola Prison Rodeo and Inmate Arts Festival, held every Sunday in October and one weekend in the spring. As a cultural anthropologist interested in folk art and popular culture, I pursued research at the Angola Prison Rodeo and Inmate Arts Festival, visiting six times in total. During my third and fourth visits, I secured permission from the warden to bring a tape recorder and camera to interview inmates, despite the usual prohibition against recording equipment at the festival.
A child of the South, I was familiar with the phenomenon of rural festivals deemed offbeat by outsiders. During the summers of my youth, I spent at least one sweltering day wandering around downtown during Hillsborough (North Carolina) Hog Day. Like other teenage girls, I followed the standard courtship rituals of flirting, sweating, and eating barbecue, laughed at the vulgarity of the old farmers' hog-calling contests, and danced with their sons to the tunes of amateur musicians. From hillbilly days in Kentucky to rattlesnake roundups in Georgia, festivals are the very fabric of public life in the South. Indeed, the ubiquity and pageantry of public events often intrigue cultural anthropologists and folklorists. For them public festivals serve as a ritual display that communicates deeper cultural meanings through which a collective group asserts its history and identity.2
The Angola Prison Rodeo and Inmate Arts Festival is a compelling model of this kind of public display, communicating complex and disturbing messages about crime and incarceration to a curious public. One inmate cowboy's experiences [End Page 23] reveal how the rodeo poses as a progressive recreational reform at the same time that it exploits and ridicules inmate participants, while the perspective of an inmate artisan demonstrates how the Inmate Arts Festival offers a more salient, though still questionable, avenue to prison reform at Angola. Although the Inmate Arts Festival provides creative and economic benefits to inmates, the festival also presents a sanitized version of prison life, and the festival atmosphere eludes any serious critique about the growing prison industrial complex in the United States. Furthermore, the cultural...