Contemporary Art Behind Bars: The emblematic Miguelete Jail in Montevideo, Uruguay, is a venue where a past of imprisonment merges with art of the present, creating new forms of expression.

Author:Castellano, Lorena
 
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Contemporary art has gone to jail, and it is not trying to escape.

The building in question is definitely a prison, with massive walls, barred windows, small cells, and interminable hallways. But law-breakers are no longer incarcerated here. Now it's a place of freedom--freedom of expression through art.

For 102 years, this fortress in the middle of Montevideo was known as the Miguelete Jail. But on July 27, 2010, the Contemporary Art Space (Espacio de Arte Contemporaneo--EAC) opened its doors with the inauguration of its first phase of reconstruction, including two floors on one of the wings of the former jail. Today, the space houses paintings, artistic installations, and "happenings" in a celebration of culture. And it is on its way to becoming an international reference point for the promotion, study, production, and exhibition of contemporary art.

Miguelete was the first penitentiary in Uruguay. It opened in 1888 during the regime of General Maximo Tajes and was known for a time as the "Preventative and Correctional Jail" before it was renamed the "Detention Establishment of Miguelete Street and Arenal Grande." Modeled after an English prison in Pentonville built in 1840, it had four wings, each with three floors and 30 cells on each floor. When it was first built, it was on the outskirts of the Uruguayan capital, but the city grew in around it over the years.

At the inaugural event, Cecilia Saravia, head of Public and Media Relations for the EAC, explained that Miguelete was considered a model prison focused on rehabilitation through work and that it featured a "panopticon," a place from which all of the rooms could be observed and monitored. She lamented, however, that very little of the history of the jail has been preserved and that it has been difficult to recreate that history. "Some time later, they began to fill the jail with un-convicted prisoners awaiting trials, and as many as nine people were placed in what was meant to be one-person cell. One of the results of this overcrowding was damage-to the building," she said. Between 1985 and 1990, Miguelete functioned as a detention center for delinquent minors as part of the National Institute of Minors (INAME), but then it was finally closed because of the terrible conditions.

The building eventually passed into the hands of the National Culture Office of the Ministry of Education and Culture. After years of disuse, the place was in ruins, inhabited by hundreds of pigeons. Then...

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