“Prisons are not the first thing most people think of when they think of Venice,” says the artist Mark Bradford, who represented the US at the 57th Biennale in 2017. “But they do represent part of the community.” There are two here: one for women on the Giudecca and another for men in Santa Croce. 

A 15-minute walk east of the latter, on the Fondamenta Frari, under an acid-green awning, stands Process Collettivo, a shop selling handmade accessories in aid of the non-profit Rio Terà dei Pensieri, which provides education, training and work for those incarcerated across Italy. That the store exists is thanks in no small part to Bradford, arguably the pre-eminent abstract artist of his generation, winner of a MacArthur Fellowship (or $800,000 “genius grant”) in 2009 as well as this year’s Getty Prize, worth $500,000 for the honoree to donate to the non-profit of their choice. In addition to creating an exhibition for the US pavilion, Bradford determined to do something for the city. “So I started researching organisations that I felt had a real social impact,” he says. “It was a broad net. Then someone recommended Rio Terà. And I was so struck by its work.”

The garden at the women’s prison in Venice
The garden at the women’s prison in Venice © Carlos Avendano/Agata Gravante/Damian Turner

Established in 1994, Rio Terà had already set up workshops in which inmates can learn skills to help them gain qualifications and employment on release. They are also able to work; in the men’s prison, there’s a silkscreen printing studio that takes on commercial contracts for museums, bookshops and universities. The garden in the women’s jail produces soaps and toiletries. “It’s all in such a contrast to the United States where the prison [system] has very little humanity,” writes Bradford in the new book that details this collaboration. He hopes “this way of working could be a template the United States could adopt”. 

Working in the bag manufacturing laboratory at the men’s prison – all the products are sold at the shop, Process Collettivo
Working in the bag manufacturing laboratory at the men’s prison – all the products are sold at the shop, Process Collettivo © Carlos Avendano/Agata Gravante/Damian Turner
Members of the cooperative sell produce from the prison in front of the building
Members of the cooperative sell produce from the prison in front of the building © Carlos Avendano/Agata Gravante/Damian Turner

Bradford, who has described his work as art “with a social or political context clinging to the edges”, is no slouch when it comes to good causes. The Sotheby’s auction of his painting Speak, Birdman raised $6.8mn for the Studio Museum in Harlem, while Art + Practice, the non-profit he co-founded, helps children experiencing displacement worldwide and young people leaving foster care, among other things.

“I come out of a long merchant culture,” Bradford says, of the appeal of the Rio Terà retail project. “My mother had a small beauty shop,” he explains, referring to the salon he was working at when, at the age of 30, he enrolled at CalArts. “I wasn’t unfamiliar with the idea of a small shop servicing a local community.” Together with the project’s former director Liri Longo, they “walked all over Venice” until they found the right site. “And we built the store from there.” 

Mark Bradford with members of the Rio Terà dei Pensieri non-profit cooperative in the garden
Mark Bradford with members of the Rio Terà dei Pensieri non-profit cooperative in the garden © Carlos Avendano/Agata Gravante/Damian Turner

More than just an outlet for products, the shop has become somewhere people can find out what Rio Terà does, and a place that helps maintain a bond between prisoners and their families. “Many of them visit the store and take pride in the fact that they can buy products that are made by family members, so there’s this emotional connection too.”

Although it’s seven years since Bradford’s first collaboration with Rio Terà, the shop endures and he will continue to support it – not least with the proceeds of a new editioned sculpture based on the form of a tote bag ($35,000), which Hauser & Wirth will launch this month. Named Borsa and blown from glass at the Berengo Studio on Murano – “so each one is a little bit different” – it is a departure from his usual style and medium. Its colour alludes to the rubino pink favoured by the Venetian aristocracy in the Renaissance. And its form echoes both the bags made in the prison workshops and “the kind of bags everybody carries at the Biennale”. The hash marks reference the way people count down the days to their release – an expression of what he calls “ideas of temporality, of counting, of incarceration”. Bradford has inscribed each tiny line himself. 

Borsa for Process Collettivo by Mark Bradford, $35,000
Borsa for Process Collettivo by Mark Bradford, $35,000 © Keith Lubow. © Mark Bradford. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Bradford cares “deeply about the project and what happens to it”. But a far deeper impression has been left by “the people I’ve come to know”. As Bradford was installing his show at the Biennale, one young man was due for parole. “I asked if he could come and work with me in the Pavilion. It was great! I would watch him interacting with all the university interns. I would tell him: ‘Don’t you hide your story. You’ve done your time. You make sure you hold your head up like everybody else.’” 

As Bradford says: “In my practice, light and shadow exist in the same space. I’m not saying you cannot enjoy the beauty of Venice, but incarcerated people exist here alongside everyone else.” 

Mark Bradford: Process Collettivo, edited by Nicole R Fleetwood, is published by Hauser & Wirth Publishers at £38. A fundraising edition will be available at the gallery’s pop-up bookstore in Venice’s Campo San Maurizio from 15 April to 3 May, with proceeds going to Rio Terà. hauserwirth.com, malefattevenezia.it, rioteradeipensieri.org

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