At a crowded gallery opening in Tulane’s Newcomb Art Museum, the air thrummed with the beat of conversations, and from the entrance textile piece that looked like a patchwork quilt, beaded and sequined, winked under the gallery lights. The quilt contains the names of the 107 women serving life sentences in prison in Louisiana in 2017. Lovingly created by a collaboration between the Golden Feather Hunters, the Creole Osceola, the Washitaw Nation, Wild Magnolias, Cheyenne Hunters, and Young Masai Hunters, the quilt threads together the objective of the exhibit. It puts names to the women serving time behind bars in Louisiana, often abused and forced to work in bondage; to integrate their stories into outsiders’ realities, and to affirm their beauty too.
The show’s pièce de résistance is 30 different pieces of art, of diverse styles and mediums, that came through a collaboration between an artist and a formerly incarcerated woman—a persister. Each woman gave an extended interview, sat for a photography portrait, then had a work created by an artist inspired by their stories.
To an auditorium full of eager museum-goers, persister Syrita Steib-Martin opened the opening’s panel discussion by noting how even in a world where women are often overlooked, incarcerated women are utterly invisible to much of the outside world. Syrita Steib-Martin and Dolfinette Martin each were partners in the creation of Per(Sister). They sat on a panel at the with Allison Beonde, who photographed each of the persisters for the exhibit, and the curator of the Newcomb, Laura Blereau. Monica Ramirez-Montegut, the director of the Newcomb, moderated.
“We realized when we were speaking to people across the country [about incarcerated women], we realized that people don’t even know about this problem,” says Steib-Martin.
“We wanted to get our voices out and do it in a beautiful way… where women can talk freely about their experience and the stories could get out tastefully… not vulturistic, not for pity.”
Ramirez-Montegut also stated that the Per(Sister) team worked hard to walk a line not to judge the choices that the women had made leading to their arrests, but rather educate and cultivate compassion. “It took time, and trust, having a really complex problem in front of us,” says Ramirez-Montegut.
Throughout the exhibit and the panel, the art and the interview transcriptions navigated traumas that began at very young ages. One narrative, from persister Mary McLeod, begins: “I got molested when I was five years old.”
Says Steib-Martin “Women of color, who are sentenced disproportionately, often do not have access to learn to deal with trauma.”
However, there is a joy to the exhibit that tempers the pain.
“Women are a work of art,” says persister Dofinette Martin.
The piece for persister Earlneishka Johnson shows a blood moon with a crown of paper flowers. The artist also integrated synthetic hair onto the canvas. The art is both moving and abstract—it the divine feminine, but it also is deeply personal.
“I hope to pay tribute to her inner and outer beauty without muffling harsh conditions she and others she described have endured,” artist Lee Diggard wrote in a statement about the piece. When Johnson could not afford to purchase necessities in prison, she sold her hair and braided other women’s hair for money.
Other persisters’ experiences became music written for the exhibit. One persister’s narrative became a beautiful lavender-colored beaded outfit by Queen Cherice Harrison-Nelson of the Guardians of the Flame Krewe.
Fox Rich was another persister featured in the exhibit—her story was a triptych of dramatizations of her story. Rich now advocates for prison abolition.
At the panel, both Martin and Steib-Martin spoke of the wrenching pain of having to leave one’s circle of friends—family—behind upon their release. After ten years in prison, Steib-Martin described not knowing how to operate computers and phones. She was terrified, she says, of being “exposed” as a formerly incarcerated person.
Martin describes prison as a “war zone.”
“How can you throw us in a war zone then say ‘go live a normal, productive life,’ with no resources, no mental health resources… sometimes they’ll say ‘we’ll see you when you get back,’” says Martin.
Multiple persisters underlined the need of support networks by and for formerly incarcerated people. Making sure to meet basic needs is the key to successful rehabilitation, and Steib-Martin now runs Operation Restoration, which does just that, as well as working to provide preventative resources to girls.
“I always have to prove that I am extraordinary,” says persister Dolita Wilhike.
Exemplifying creativity, vitality, and resilience in the face of trauma, racism and abuse, Per(sister) is an extraordinary body of work. However, Per(Sister) also tells the audience that the circumstances that land women in a punitive, dangerous, and exploitative prison system are often anything but.
The Newcomb is free and open to the public on Tuesday – Friday 10 am – 5 pm and Saturday 11 am – 4 pm.
Jesse Lu Baum is a queer writer and cartoonist originally from Brooklyn, New York. Her writing has been featured in publications such as Medium.com, The Jewish Daily Forward, The Mid-City Messenger and Preservation in Print. Aside from writing, she has also worked as a non-profit home repair person, a theater bartender, and a research assistant.