Newcomb Art Museum confronts mass incarceration with new exhibit

Nile Pierre, News Editor

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From 2005 to 2018, Louisiana was the prison capital of the world. Still, the state’s incarceration rates are higher than all of the non-U.S. founding NATO countries combined. The Newcomb Art Museum’s “Per(Sister): Incarcerated Women in Louisiana” exhibition works to highlight Louisiana’s growing imprisonment rate for women and girls.

“Given our feminist legacy at Newcomb, ‘Per(Sister)’ uses the platform of an exhibition to give voice, quite literally, to a group of women whose life experiences are often overlooked, silenced or misunderstood,” Laura Blereau, curator and coordinator of academic programming for the Newcomb Art Museum, said.

The exhibition focuses on the causes of female incarceration, how it impacts families, the physical and mental health of inmates and the challenges women face after imprisonment. Led by prison reform advocates Dolfinette Martin and Syrita Steib-Martin, “Per(Sister)” is the first of three exhibitions the museum has planned that cover mass incarceration in the state.

The exhibit humanizes the voices of the formerly incarcerated and shows how complex these individuals and their stories are.

“You know the people that sit in the state capital, they make these decisions and make these laws, they don’t have a clue,” Desiree Morrison, one of the formerly incarcerated women featured in the exhibit, said. “I shoplifted out of Winn Dixie on Claiborne because I was nine months pregnant and nobody would give me a job.”

All of the newly commissioned “Per(Sister)” artworks are unique. Each of the 30 formerly incarcerated women featured in “Per(Sister)” were paired with an artist who then interpreted their experiences into artwork or song.

“There are several hands reaching in the main body of the drawing, representing the many that have helped her survive,” Ron Bechet, the artist paired with Morrison, said. “Although she had many reasons to be down on herself and the rest of the world, it struck me in her interview, and her life, she kept her positive nature.”

One of the works in the exhibit features a portrait of Dolita Wilhike, a formerly incarcerated woman, in the likeness of Angela Davis. In the art piece, “13th,” Wilhike’s face is juxtaposed on top of an American flag, where images of slave ships from the Atlantic Slave trade, chains and other symbols of black struggle occupy the flag’s white stripes.

“‘13th’ attempts to express the raw determination, intelligence and strength of all women struggling for equality and freedom on American soil, particularly the generations of families who are suffering economically in Louisiana, seemingly with no end in sight,” the artist behind “13th” Epaul Julien said.

In April 2018, the Louisiana House voted to expand the use of inmate labor. Some of the work inmates are subjected to include custodial work, cooking, construction and maintaining the property at the state capitol and governor’s mansion. For work in off-site state facilities, inmates are paid between 4 and 70 cents per hour, when the federal wage is $7.25 an hour.

“People wonder why I’m so happy because I’m making $13 an hour, and they’re complaining that they’re not making $20,” Wilhike said. “Because I came from making 6 cents an hour. And that’s why.”

One of the women featured in the exhibit, Wendi Cooper, was imprisoned due to Louisiana’s “crime against nature” law. This anti-sodomy law punishes adults who have oral and anal sex with up to five years in prison or the possibility of a $2,000 fine.

“I’m a transgender woman from the city of New Orleans,” Cooper said. “In 1999, I was charged with a crime that is very discriminatory against LGBT people in Louisiana. New Orleans Police Department had transgender women on the list of extinction, and they was utilizing this law to get rid of trans women and the LGBTQ people itself.”

Tammy Mercure photographed Cooper for the exhibit featuring her face, her back inscribed with words relating to the law, and her wrists in shackles.

The “Per(Sister)” exhibit is free and open to the public until July 6, 2019. The museum is offering a range of events supporting the exhibit, including a talk with Tulane law professors titled “Mass Incarceration and the Law” this Saturday from 2-3 p.m. in Weinmann Hall. For more information, visit the Newcomb Art Museum website.