A new show at the Newcomb Museum of Art combines visual art and music with personal narratives and themes of social justice to an extraordinarily powerful effect.
“(Per)Sister: Incarcerated Women of Louisiana” (www.persister.info) tells the stories of 30 women currently and formerly incarcerated in the state prison system through pieces created by mostly Louisiana-based artists and musicians.
The statistics behind the show are sobering. For decades, Louisiana has ranked in the top 10 states nationwide for the highest incarceration rates — and in fact only lost its top spot in the list two years ago following a much-heralded series of reforms.
But incarceration rates here for women — who are most often convicted for lower-level crimes like drugs and property offenses — continue to outpace national averages. And of the women incarcerated in Louisiana, 80 percent of whom are mothers, the overwhelming majority are survivors of sexual and/or relationship abuse.
Curated by Newcomb’s Monica Ramirez-Montagut and Laura Blereau in partnership with Syrita Steib-Martin and Dolfinette Martin, whose life experiences also inform works in the show, “(Per)Sister” includes paintings, drawings, photographs, mixed-media pieces, video and original music compositions.
One oft-repeated cliché holds that it’s the little things in life that count, while another says bigger is better.
While several of the pieces in the show take a more direct storytelling approach (most often through figurative or abstract portraits of their subjects), the more engaging ones are compelling works of art in their own right.
Epaul Julien uses an American flag and imagery sourced from the internet to tell the story of Dolita Wilhike, making literal parallels between Wilhike’s experience and larger historical narratives about slavery, forced labor and the ongoing struggle for civil rights and self-determinism.
Cherice Harrison-Nelson created a ceremonial outfit for her subject, Zina Mitchell, based on traditional African-American Carnival attire and lavishly decorated with narrative beadwork and symbolism pertinent to Mitchell’s story.
The quiet, intimate scale of a series of drawings of interior spaces by Maria Hinds belies their importance in the life of her subject Nicole Edwards: Each represents a literal and figurative stage in Edward’s experience, from the bedroom in Gentilly where she isolated herself with a drug habit to the church in New Orleans East where she found faith, transcendence and healing.
On a very different scale, Devin Reynolds uses a quote from an interview with subject Lea Stern to create a gut-punch of a piece with the immediacy of an advertising billboard. Similarly, Butch Frosch tells the story of Tremica Henry using the expressive language of Pop Art — which, as the artist notes, doesn’t usually concern itself with the stories of incarcerated women of color.
Randolph Delehanty, curator of “The Baroness Pontalba and the Rise of Jackson Square,” shares five must-see objects from the exhibit.
And Bobbie Jean Johnson — whose crime, in her own words, was a result of “looking for love in all the wrong places” and who served four decades in prison because of it — finds her story powerfully distilled in Rontherin Ratliff’s “All Black & Blue, Bruises of a Queen's Crown.” Using the metaphor of a chess game to explore the complex interplays of the criminal justice system, Ratliff tells Johnson’s story through a mixed media sculpture in the shape of a chess piece incorporating elements like guns, padlocks, and police badges.
But singling out a handful of works in the show does it a disservice. There are dozens of affecting personal histories in “(Per)Sister”, and even if a few of them don’t find expression in pieces that are as resonant visually as the stories themselves, they’re all worthy of attention.
In addition to the visual art pieces, several of the stories in “(Per)Sister” are told by original pieces of music which will be performed in a concert at Tulane’s Freeman Auditorium on March 22. And there’s a wide roster of free events related to the show, including panel discussions, film screenings, family days, exhibition tours, and interactive workshops.
Many of the high-profile art shows in New Orleans this year have used the occasion of the city’s tricentennial to celebrate the more colorful …
The expansive website for the exhibition includes audio excerpts from interviews with each participant in the project along with portraits by photographer Allison Beonde. It's an absorbing work of art in itself.
John D'Addario writes about art. Contact him at email@example.com.
“(Per)Sister: Incarcerated Women of Louisiana” at Newcomb Art Museum
WHEN: Through July 6
WHERE: Newcomb Art Museum, Woldenberg Art Center, Tulane University