Dolita Wilhike’s portrait is cast in sepia, her head tilted to the right and eyes fixed upward. The image evokes the iconic portrait of activist Angela Davis. However, surrounding Wilhike’s face is an image of the American flag. From afar, the image is simple: Wihilke’s face superimposed onto the most recognizable symbol of America. Upon closer inspection however, the fullness of the piece comes into view, giving it new meaning. Etched onto the flag’s white stripes are a collage of images: sketches of bodies packed into slave ships traversing the middle passage, prints of slave auction signs, photographs of enslaved families on plantations, and contemporary photos of incarcerated men and women in shackles.
Thirteenth, the piece by artist Epaul Julien, offers a searing commentary on America, arguing that embedded into the tapestry of the country are histories of racial violence and systems of oppression, with mass incarceration having replaced chattel slavery. Wilhike’s face emerging out of that background suggests that despite the country’s history and the way her own life has been informed by it, there is a different vision for the future that lies ahead. The determination in her eyes implies that she may be the one to lead us all there.
Wilhike is just one of 30 formerly incarcerated women featured in Per(Sister): Incarcerated Women of Louisiana, an exhibit curated by the Newcomb Art Museum at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, and currently on view at the Ford Foundation Gallery in New York through May 9. Per(Sister) features 25 visual art pieces and five songs from Louisiana-based artists. Each artist was paired with a formerly incarcerated woman, or “persister.” The artists used interviews with these women to shape their work around the women’s experiences.
The exhibit is organized around four primary themes: the root causes of incarceration, the physical and psychological toll that incarceration plays on women, the impact of incarceration on mothers, and the challenges of reentry for women upon release.
Newcomb Art Museum director and chief curator Monica Ramirez-Montagut says that the Museum worked closely with co-curators Syrita Steib-Martin and Dolfinette Martin of Operation Restoration, an organization aimed at supporting currently and formerly incarcerated women by providing them with the resources needed to successfully transition back home. Martin and Steib-Martin helped identify the 30 persisters in the exhibit, and shaped the themes and content around what the women felt would most accurately represent them.
“Out of the 30 interviews that we did, I would say maybe only a handful of them had been asked ever in their lives ‘How are you? What happened? Can I hear your story without judgment?’” says Ramirez-Montagut.
Ramirez-Montagut emphasized how the museum wanted to divert the focus away from what exactly placed these women in contact with the system and instead hone in on the root causes of incarceration. Artist Kira Akerman, who filmed The Arrest, a video about persister Chastity Hunter, spoke about that commitment to focus on the women’s humanity and not on what brought them into the system. Viewers’ assumptions, however, made that difficult.
“Before filming, I knew that I wanted to describe Chasity’s experience of jail rather than answer everyone’s automatic question: ‘Why were you in jail?’” writes Akerman. “‘Why’ seemed superfluous—her jail experience was horrific, far from a vision of justice. Yet in the editing process, almost every viewer wondered about the ‘why.’ I added a title card. To me, the ‘why’ matters only insofar as it begs another, bigger question: Does anyone, under any circumstances, deserve this kind of treatment?”
The curators and artists’ decision to center the women and not on their alleged crimes came to inform the name of the exhibit itself. The title Per(Sister)—a play on the word “persister”—arose from the insistence on not referring to the women as “ex-convicts” or “ex-felons.”
“You never describe yourself as the worst thing that has happened to you,” says Ramirez-Montagut.
There are a number of other ways the exhibit has been crafted around how the women would like to be understood and the narratives they would like to see subverted. For example, while a portion of Per(Sister) highlights how women’s incarceration impacts entire communities and families—an important consideration given that 80% of incarcerated women are mothers—the exhibit was also sure to not solely define these women by their motherhood. Additionally, the women wanted the exhibit to reflect their growth and healing.
Per(Sister)’ssole focus on women is perhaps its most unique contrast with other recent exhibits that have used art to critique mass incarceration. “I had one guy tell me I don’t know what it feels like being a man locked up, I say you don’t know what it feels like being a woman,” reads a quote from persister Dianne Jones.
Women and girls comprise a growing number of the United States’ incarcerated population, yet still remain largely invisible. Over the past four decades, women’s incarceration in state prisons has increased by 834%. Laws that criminalize survivors of domestic violence or statues that target trans women—like Louisiana’s Crimes Against Nature Law, which is powerfully critiqued in artist Tammi McCure’s photo series of persister Wendi Cooper—contribute to this increase.
Once women enter into the carceral system, their experiences are further complicated. In states like Louisiana, women incarcerated for state offenses often complete their entire sentences in local jails which are far less resourced than full-scale prisons, which makes successful re-entry even more difficult. Additionally, women routinely find themselves in facilities that were designed for men and thus do not provide for necessities like gynecological exams, pre- and postnatal care, or menstrual hygiene products.
Per(Sister) deftly hones in on how the system not only divorces incarcerated women from their families and their communities, but also from their own bodies. In Still Human/Still Lifes, artist Ryn Wilson draws upon the response given by persister Yolanda Ford when asked about the items she missed most while incarcerated. The first of the two photographed portraits shows tampons, hair rollers, pads, a privacy curtain, toilet paper, and hair perm. The second shows family photos, a television, hot food, and clothes.
Other pieces illuminate the gaps between legislation and actual practices. A moving photo series by L. Kasimu Harris features persister Fox Rich, who was pregnant with twins while inside and was shackled during labor despite legislation that bans the practice.
Throughout its 30 pieces, the exhibit not only incorporates a breadth of artistic mediums from photographs to collage to infographics to music, but it also relays the stories of women at different points of contact with the system. Akerman’s The Arrest details the experience of pretrial detention in Louisiana, while artist Keith Duncan’s piece, Gilda’s Story, reveals how Hurricane Katrina kept persisters like Gilda Caesar in prison long after they had already completed their sentences. As visitors traverse the space, they also find a timeline at their feet highlighting pivotal dates in United States and Louisiana history as they relate to the evolution of the carceral system.
“I think the success of this exhibition is that it has different points of access,” explains Ramirez-Montagut. “So you can actually just read the introduction text panel and the timeline and get a crash course on mass incarceration. However, the visual power and the metaphors and the narrative strategy of the visual arts is an attractive channel for capturing people’s imagination.”
This week, the Ford Foundation Gallery hosted an opening for Per(Sister) and a series of curator-led walks. Visitors noted being moved, but not particularly shocked at how little they had known about women’s incarceration. The use of visual media was something that visitors like Tara Page, a New York City educator, found particularly compelling and hopefully likely to draw people in.
“Hearing lived stories is really the way to get connected,” Page says. She feels that stories from those inside can help dismantle society’s perception of what the carceral system actually does. Parts of the exhibit that stood out to her most were those on health care and how women inside are neglected in ways that even run contrary to new laws and regulations.
“The system is so well branded as the criminal justice system,” says Page. “When it’s really the criminal injustice system.”
Visitor Caitlin Donaghy, a midwife working in New York City, was also deeply interested in the exhibit’s focus on health care, particularly the lack of prenatal and postnatal care offered to women inside.
“The discussion about healthcare in the prison system—it’s unfortunately not surprising,” says Donaghy. “I don’t know if people understand how much it’s a reflection of slavery.”
For Donaghy, the power of the exhibit is in its storytelling abilities. To make change, those narratives need to be paired with legislative pushes in order to truly improve the lives of persisters all across the country. The first step toward making those changes, she said, is for visitors to use the exhibit not just as an amusement or detour from their daily routine but to take up the concerns of the featured women as their own.
“There needs to be more action,” says Donaghy. “It’s not enough to hear stories about Brown women and then go about our day.”
— Per(Sister): Incarcerated Women of Louisiana will be on view at the Ford Foundation Gallery in New York City through May 9.