Advancing the Fight for Freedom Through Art

Akeil Robertson leveraged his Hurford Center and VCAM residency to positively impact the lives of incarcerated people. His exhibition “Project Hasan” is on view in VCAM’s Create Space through Friday, Oct. 6.

As Akeil Robertson tells it, he nearly gave up on the notion of being an artist at age 10. After arriving late to a Saturday morning youth art class at Philadelphia’s Moore College of Art & Design, he discovered his classmates deep into their drawings of characters from the popular 1990s anime Dragon Ball Z.

“While my mother got me involved in the program and fought hard for me to continue my art education she miscalculated how long it would take to get from our home in Germantown to the College. So we got to our first Saturday morning art program late,” Robertson says. “Everybody had already at least drawn a character, and I knew I had no ability to do so. In my young mind, I decided right then and there that art wasn’t for me.”

Though an appreciation for the arts, especially a dream about becoming a filmmaker, lingered throughout the rest of his adolescence, Robertson wouldn’t fully discover his talents until he was incarcerated at age 19 in the former State Correctional Institution — Graterford in the Philadelphia exurbs. It was there he discovered a community of artists who demonstrated artistic abilities that were revealed through vigorous practice, not just innate talent.

Now, in many ways, Robertson has come full circle as an artist, combining his creative vision with his experiences as a formerly incarcerated person and vital work as an active member of the reentry community. He is the 2022-2023 Hurford Center & VCAM Philadelphia artist-in-residence, an opportunity that was retooled last year to run parallel to Haverford’s recent Imagining Abolitionist Futures series. Robertson’s residency will formally conclude on Friday when his exhibition, Project Hasan, ends its run in the lower-level VCAM Create Space.

Though he admits he was initially hesitant to apply for the residency — he had only ever been directly invited to participate in opportunities previously — Robertson was inspired to think about leveraging Haverford’s resources to help those outside the college who need assistance. He says his conversations with Associate Professor and Chair of English Linday Reckson helped him shift his idea for a project about developing a new language for race discussions to reflect on his experiences in Pennsylvania’s carceral system.

“I don’t agree with throwing people out. I don’t agree with not giving people second chances,” Robertson says, adding that, from his perspective, Pennsylvania’s justice system operates under an opposing ideology. “I am an abolitionist in the sense that I believe in people’s ability to change, and I believe that everyone should have the opportunity to do so.”

One of the people who hasn’t had a second chance is Louis Stern, also known as Hasan, the focal point of Robertson’s exhibition. The two met at Graterford when they enrolled in a degree-granting program operated by Villanova University, one of only eight such programs that continue to operate in the country. As one of the few students in the program not serving a life sentence, Robertson recalls being unafraid to challenge professors on their ideas, often to the dismay of his classmates who hoped to leverage their relationships with educators to have their sentences commuted. 

Because Pennsylvania’s justice system can be harsh and retributive, Robertson says it was wise for his peers to guard and protect the people who could help them escape. Hasan, he says, was concerned for his freedom, too, but took a different approach. 

“He always applauded me for my critical thinking. He wouldn’t get upset with me. He gave me license to listen to authority, consider the things that might be said, but also have my own opinion,” Robertson says. “He really helped guide and shepherd me in my academic journey with such compassion and such love and such care.”

In reflecting on how his residency could positively impact those who supported him, especially those serving life sentences, Robertson landed on making a short film centered on Hasan’s friends and family. The space is also filled with didactic panels that touch on sobering statistics surrounding the Pennsylvania carceral system, from the disproportionate number of life sentences — especially among young people — in the commonwealth to the steep drop in income formerly incarcerated people face after reentry. Sadly, Hasan, who continues to serve his sentence in State Correctional Institution — Phoenix, which replaced Graterford’s facility on the same grounds in 2018, is not allowed to view the film. 

“It’s like a thorn in my side,” Robertson says about Hasan’s inability to see his work. “But for me, the ultimate success of this residency would be his freedom. Not tomorrow, I really doubt that will happen. As a result of this work and the momentum that could be built here, I really hope that we can make a difference in the lives and families of those incarcerated. That would mean a lot.”

Now, with his residency complete, Robertson has turned his attention to envisioning a new project with Haverford that charts Graterford’s history. Despite its intended purpose, it was a special place, he says, that allowed those incarcerated there to develop important relationships and nurture those who are now engaged in the fight against severe wrongdoings in the criminal justice system.  

“I think that the way that we push back on the system and its callousness is thinking about how to tell human stories in ways that make abolition all but a foregone conclusion,” Robertson says. “So for me, it’s part of that larger narrative of, I don’t even want to say humanizing folks, but injecting a better understanding that we’re all fallible but nonetheless still have the opportunity to change.”