A Caged Bird Sings
New art exhibit showcases stories of incarcerated Louisiana women
The Life Quilt, 2018
Art can transcend history, language barriers and cultural differences. A new exhibit at Newcomb Art Museum of Tulane will push more boundaries and test whether the human experience as expressed through art can transcend prison walls.
Per(Sister): Incarcerated Women of Louisiana, opening Saturday, Jan. 19, is an innovative exhibition that is composed of new works by more than 30 artists who have interpreted the life experiences of 30 formerly and currently incarcerated women, known collectively as the “PerSisters.”
The exhibition aims to shine a light on the stories of women who are often “unknown, overlooked, dismissed or misunderstood.” There are myriad misconceptions of people who are incarcerated, and data show that women have particular challenges in the system. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, there is a “disturbing gender disparity in recent prison population trends.” The incarceration rate for women nationwide has grown 834 percent in the past 40 years, and in Louisiana the incarceration rate for women is higher than the national average.
Adding to the complexity of the challenges for these women, a 2016 study by the Vera Institute of Justice found that 86 percent of women who have spent time in jail report being sexually assaulted at some time in their lives; nearly 80 percent of women in jail are mothers and most are single parents; and the vast majority of women in jail (82 percent) are serving time for nonviolent offenses, including property, drug and public order offenses.
The artists collaborating with the exhibit have incorporated voice recordings, photographic portraits, informative illustrations, sculptures, paintings, songs and live performances to share the narratives of the PerSisters. Through these pieces, the museum said it will examine themes such as “the root causes of female incarceration, the impact of incarcerating mothers, the physical and behavioral toll of incarceration, and the challenges and opportunities for reentry for formerly incarcerated women.”
Per(Sister) has been designed to be especially accessible to the community. A series of free events have been planned through the months of the installation that invite the public to interact with the art, artists, organizers and performers to gain a better understanding of the universality of the struggles faced by an entire community when it is impacted by incarceration.
Opening day is Saturday, Jan. 19 from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. The day will be filled with family activities including tie-dye, a scavenger hunt and making your own message in a bottle from 2 p.m. to 4 pm. In front of the museum, there will be a community planting of flowers chosen by incarcerated mothers from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. The evening’s events will begin with a performance by The Graduates at 4:45 p.m. in the Freeman Auditorium. There will also be free food and drinks, interactive storytelling for children ages five and under, a panel discussion featuring PerSisters and the co-producers of the exhibition, Syrita Steib-Martin and Dolfinette Martin, and a performance by Cherice Harrison Nelson, Big Queen of the Guardians of the Flame Mardi Gras Indians and PerSister Zina Mitchell.
Additional events include free family days on Feb. 16, March 16 and April 20, panel discussions, film screenings, exhibition tours, music and dance performances, and a special celebration of Juneteenth on June 19. Details for all of the free events can be found online.
Per(Sister) will be on exhibition from Jan. 19 through July 6. Newcomb Art Museum of Tulane is free and open to the public Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. The museum is located on Tulane University’s campus on Newcomb Place between Willow Street and Freret Street.