My name is Five Omar Mualimmak. I was born in Ethiopia and grew up in different cities across America, eventually settling in New York. I come from a family of revolutionaries – my father was in the Black Liberation Army for many years & my mother a committed activist.
As a young person, I used to always enjoy drawing. When I was incarcerated for 12 years in New York State and thrown into solitary confinement for 5 of those years, I started to draw portraits because in the extreme isolation, I dreamed of people, of faces.
I drew hundreds and hundreds of portraits in prison – of inmates, of their families, their children who were growing up without them, and even of prison guards and their loved ones. These portraits helped me to survive not only because it served as currency in the prison economy but also because I was able to find peace and mental release through drawing. Spending 23 hours a day for 5 years entirely alone in a 6’ x 9’ cell with little to no stimulus, drawing literally kept me sane.
Although I have never had formal training, the intense amount of time I spent drawing in prison served as my education. I would spend hours upon hours in my cell sketching, turning a plain uninspired flat piece of paper into a dynamic almost three-dimensional face with texture, incredible detail, and life. I was a perfectionist. I loved the challenge of it and I loved people’s reactions when they saw their children, parents, spouses, siblings made almost real right in front of them.
I recently was released from prison and am a dedicated anti-prison, anti-solitary confinement human rights activist. I work closely with a number of anti-prison organizations in New York and across the country, including The Campaign to End the New Jim Crow, a project of Riverside Church, and Think Outside the Box, Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement in New York’s Prisons and Jails.
I rely on income from my artwork to support my activism and my family as it is difficult for those who are formerly incarcerated to find work or receive public assistance. Thank you for reading this, for looking at my work, and for your support.
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