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You'll Know It When You Feel It


Raphaela Rosella with Dayannah Baker Barlow, Kathleen Duncan, Gillianne Laurie, Tammara Macrokanis, Amelia Rosella, Nunjul Townsend, Laurinda Whitton, Tricia Whitton, and family

In Australia and across the globe demands are growing for a society in which prisons and policing are no longer the default solution to address social, economic, and political issues in our communities. Despite this, systems of surveillance, classification, and control extend far beyond prison walls, parole boards, and courtrooms. They are embedded in archives, bureaucratic procedures, and the subsequent documents that record an individual’s lived experience. Unveiling the ineptitude of ‘official records’, You’ll Know It When You Feel It is a socially engaged art project that seeks to resist bureaucratic representations of women whose lives intersect with the Prison Industrial Complex.

Co-created by Brisbane based artist Raphaela Rosella, this intimate work has emerged over fifteen years alongside several women in her life. From six-minute phone calls to handwritten letters that circulate between Rosella, her friends, family members, and loved ones, the multi-authored exhibition You’ll Know It When You Feel It examines the value of their co-created archive as a site of resistance.

Presented in partnership with advocacy organisation Sisters Inside Inc.You’ll Know It When You Feel It will be accompanied by a series of community-engaged programs–including performances, panel discussions, artist talks, and creative workshops. Led by contemporary Meriam/Munbarra artist and prison abolitionist Boneta-Marie Mabo, the program will provide a platform for criminalised and formerly incarcerated individuals, artists, activists, and scholars to challenge how art can resist the carceral state.

Every history of the multitude, the dispossessed, the subaltern, and the enslaved is forced to grapple with the power and authority of the archive and the limits it sets on what can be known, whose perspectives matter, and who is endowed with the gravity and authority of historical actor.
—Saidiya Hartman

THE PRISON-INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX does not only encompass policing and courtrooms, prisons, and probation, it is also embedded in archival practices. Bureaucratic procedures and documents have the power to punish, and to reinforce existing power structures that silence certain voices. The right to speak, particularly as an incarcerated individual, relies on the type of story you contribute.

You’ll Know It When You Feel It is an exhibition that traces the interconnected experiences of photographer and researcher Raphaela Rosella, her family, and friends in relation to the complex impacts of carceral systems. Growing up in Nimbin on Bundjalung Country, Rosella saw firsthand how her community was frequently surveilled, arrested, court-sanctioned, separated from informal support systems, and ultimately (and increasingly) imprisoned. As Rosella puts it:

"...rather than meet the immediate needs of our community such as providing access to safe and affordable housing, secure employment, quality education, accessible and holistic healthcare, and adequate welfare support, the state punishes us for engaging in underground economies to survive."

You’ll Know It When You Feel It draws from a co-created archive of imagery, recordings, documents, and ephemera produced and collected over a fifteen-year period, with contributions from several women and families from Nimbin, Lismore, Casino, and Moree. From wallpaper made from redacted documents that reveal the ineptitude of ‘official records’ to bittersweet family documents that preserve memories for loved ones who have been denied the right to intimacy, You’ll Know It When You Feel It asserts the value of co-created archives as a site of resistance. 

Rosella acknowledges the tensions that lie within the collaboration at the heart of this project. These arise through her own privileges of race, higher education, and community support (she has no firsthand experience of being imprisoned), through the extractive conditions inherent in the medium of photography, and through the ambivalent position of the gallery, as a Eurocentric structure that can be operationalised to either enforce or resist the settler-colonial project. As Rosella states:

"...the relentless imprisonment of several co-creators often means that our relational exchanges are heavily restricted. Yet, at the end of the day, I can enter and leave these punitive settings as a ‘visitor’, whereas my loved ones who are incarcerated ‘must return to enclosed boxes as criminalised and punished subjects."

Nonetheless, this archive still shares vital insight into the emotional landscape of what lies beneath the violence enacted by the prison-industrial complex. 

While we see these documents articulated as an exhibition at the Institute of Modern Art, they have also been part of family albums and memorial services, custody disputes and court cases, resulting in reduced custodial sentences, and successful bail and parole applications. Counter-archival practices can be deployed to serve community and memory, and in action against state narratives and records that see intimate lives reduced to pages of paperwork. 

You’ll Know It When You Feel It and the public program that accompanies it remind us that abolition is a collective creative act that contemporary art is in a unique position to help envision. Abolition means not just closing prisons. It also requires abolishing the culture of power and punishment that permeates our daily lives, our workplaces, our cultural institutions, and our arts practices. It is a project of creating a more just, equitable, compassionate world that is rooted in principles of care and collective liberation.

As abolitionist, scholar, and activist Ruth Wilson Gilmore writes, ‘Freedom is a place’—you’ll know it when you feel it.

—Tulleah Pearce with Raphaela Rosella

IN A SOCIETY where the state enacts surveillance, criminalisation, and punishment to address social, economic, and political problems, prison becomes an inevitable destination. As American activist Angela Davis reminds us, ‘prisons do not disappear problems, they disappear human beings. And the practice of disappearing vast numbers of people from poor, immigrant, and racially marginalized communities has become big business.’

Despite growing up in a heavily policed community, I didn’t begin You’ll Know It When You Feel It with the intention of documenting carcerality. It started, over fifteen years ago, as a photo-based documentary project that sought to amplify the intimacy and complexity of young motherhood alongside my identical twin, stepsister, and new and old friends. As our families grew, so did our archive, with contributions by friends and family members from several communities. 

In recent years, our lives have increasingly intersected with the carceral state—often in violent and explicit ways. I continue to witness my loved ones pipelined towards prison, where many enter, leave, and shortly return, as if through a revolving door. Each time, their sentences are a little longer, and the paper trail thicker than before. Yet what remains absent from the arbitrary decisions, court documents, police statements, case files, and criminal indexes that record these experiences are the intimate relations of love and care that extend across carceral geographies. 

Navigating carceral bureaucracies and surveillance, we decided to create our own counter-archive to express the intimate dimensions of our lives beyond what was being recorded—and thus archived—about us. From six-minute monitored phone calls to handwritten letters that circulated between us and intimate others, we began to collect evidence of this time beyond the bureaucratic documents that otherwise represent this experience. Behind bars, loved ones contributed personal archives, including journals, letters, family photos, and state-issued documents that represent their criminality. During their captivity, they would mail these personal archives to me to contribute to what we now consider our co-created archive. 

It was during this time, while incarcerated, that Tammara would highlight, redact, and amend the pages of errors within the family-court documents that marked her a ‘criminal’ and ‘unfit mother’. Tammara’s acts of resistance questioned whose voices are recorded and whose voices are silenced, whose voices are deemed credible and whose voices are not. Her refusal to accept this authority led us to consider our co-created archive as a site of resistance. 

To Tammara and our loved ones still behind bars, we dedicate this installation to you—in your fight to unveil the ineptitude of the ‘official record’ and your fight to be heard and understood. I will forever cherish our friendship, childhood memories, and the past decade we have shared working together. Your commitment to sharing your story has been inspiring, rewarding, and at times heartbreaking. I am still struggling to accept that you are gone. You have taught me to care deeply. Instead of pushing our loved ones away, you have taught me to bring them closer. 

Unlike the documents that marked you, you were: 

a daughter 
a mother 
a sister 
a partner 
an aunty and a friend. 

Finally free— 
forever in our hearts— 
you will never be forgotten.

—Raphaela Rosella 

The Right to Intimacy
Raphaela Rosella & Nicole R. Fleetwood

Though we have never met, Raphaela Rosella and I are tethered by carceral archives and a devotional love to family, friends and neighbors who have been swept away, disappeared or who are no longer alive due to the prison industrial complex. Both she and I reside in settler colonial states; she in Australia, I in the United States. For many years we have both worked within distinctly different, yet similarly marginalized, working-poor communities on the visual record of the carceral state and its impact on intimate life. Half a world apart from each other we have been amassing a range of personal images, letters and ephemera, alongside punitive mandates and carceral state records, which reflect both the violence of prison and the ways that criminalized and imprisoned people forge and maintain relations of love and care. As activists, artists and scholars of ‘carceral aesthetics’, we build new modes of belonging in collaboration with people impacted by prison, ways of imagining otherwise. 

Rosella’s photo-based projects grapple visually with what American literary scholar Saidiya Hartman describes as ‘the power and authority of the archive and the limits it sets on what can be known, whose perspectives matter, and who is endowed with the gravity and authority of historical actor’. Focusing on criminal indexes and state records of arrest, custody and confinement, Rosella interweaves photographs of women in her intimate life – relatives, lifelong friends – with documents of state bureaucracies that criminalize them and leave them vulnerable to further punishment and marginalization. 

The images of women that appear in Rosella’s projects are not only photographs she located in state archives, but portraits of women in her life whom she has witnessed entangled by carceral bureaucracies, some never to recover or survive. The projects amount to counter-archives of state records, and are co-created by Rosella with Gillianne, Mimi, Nunjul, Rowrow, Tammara, Tricia and other women in her life who are subjects of these records. 

Rosella, who is of Italian-immigrant descent, grew up in a lower-class family in a small town in Australia, where daily contact with the police was the norm. ‘It’s a heavily policed town, known for its alternative and open drug culture. The word “taxi” would echo throughout the main street each time the cops were spotted. It was a way we all looked out for each other in resistance to the relentless police presence that routinely harassed and surveilled our small community.’ 

At an early age, Rosella knew that she wanted to be a photographer. While in primary school, she saved up for her first point-and-shoot camera. By high school, she was involved with a community arts organization documenting her own community, as well as other marginalized peoples and communities in Australia. She became the face of the organization, and was an internationally known artist by her early twenties. During this period, she photographed portraits and environmental images of communities in distress, like her award-winning portrait of a young girl, Laurinda. 

Rosella is now ambivalent, even critical, of these early works, stating, ‘When you’re learning photography it’s instilled in you that you should try to win awards to elevate your career. The most sensationalised imagery and content were consistently winning these competitions. But that didn’t feel right. So I’ve pushed back against this in the kind of imagery that I make. Sometimes I just need to put the camera down and be present as a sister, family member or friend. And sometimes not every aspect of our lives is for an audience to see.’ 

After fifteen years of working in collaboration with this organization, strictly in the documentary tradition, Rosella grew increasingly concerned about the power dynamics of the archive, her practice and the organization that was facilitating and promoting the work. 

‘I recently left the organization because I started questioning whether their projects were really moving beyond collaborative rhetoric. I started with them as a young, vulnerable teenager, and so did a number of my co-creators. We started as participants together. In recent years I noticed power dynamics were playing out in the work that I was making for the organisation. There was a big issue where one of my co-creators wanted to withdraw consent from one of their projects, and they just weren’t listening to her requests... This has led me to grapple with several questions within my personal practice; how can I work in a relational way without unconsciously forcing power over my co-creators, especially those positioned across varying states of unfreedom? I’ve now spent over fifteen years co-creating photo-based projects alongside several friends and family members from my childhood and adolescence. This has resulted in a co-created archive of photographic works, moving image, sound recordings, state-issued documents, love letters from jail and ephemera. So, who controls our co-created archive? These are the questions I’m looking at within my PhD.’ 

Co-creating with the women in her life, across several communities, evolved as a practice of refusing state narratives, resisting documentary objectification and counter-archiving the images and stories that mattered to them. ‘I have several co-creators, and some are heavily involved at times and sometimes they step back. But it’s definitely a relational process – I’ve been looking at relational ethics and those kinds of concepts. And I came across your work and “carceral aesthetics” just made sense, especially in terms of navigating carceral bureaucracies and surveillance.’ 

One of the first iterations of this co-created archive emerged as the series We met a little early, but I get to love you longer. Motherhood starts at a young age for the girls in Rosella’s community, including herself. In her early thirties, Rosella is a mother of three. Her twin sister became a mother at nineteen, and her step-sister had five children by the age of twenty-four. We met a little early, but I get to love you longer served as an opportunity for Rosella and the women in her life to self-document their experiences of mothering and care by combining existing state records and images with their own photographs and writings. Because young mothering is pathologized by the state as the source of a myriad of social ills, these personal archives claim this space as one of deep longing, loving and hope. 

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 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.