The United States is home to the world’s most incarcerated population, with 2.2 million individuals held within its prison system. Over the past 40 years, the incarceration rate for women has increased by over 800%. Per(Sister): Incarcerated Women of the United States is a socially-driven exhibition that harnesses the arts to raise awareness of the particular challenges women face during and after incarceration, with attention given to exploring some of the underlying societal conditions that have helped drive forward incarceration rates in the first place.
This exhibit was arranged by the Newcomb Art Museum of Tulane University in Louisiana, and paired 30 current and formerly incarcerated women (referred throughout the exhibit as “PerSisters”) with artists who listened to their stories and translated their experiences into artistic form. At the time of the show’s creation, Louisiana was the incarceration capital of the world, with over 1,000 incarcerates per 100,000 inhabitants, compared with 600 per 100,000 in Russia, and 118 per 100,000 in China. Michigan State University’s Broad Art Museum now hosts this traveling exhibit. Underscoring the relevance of the show across state lines, the Broad complements the show with the adjacent exhibition Free Your Mind, which addresses incarceration specifically in Michigan. Together, both shows encourage us to view these individuals with empathy and dignity.
The works of art (ranging from photography, painting, site-specific installation, fabric art, sculpture, and even music) are eclectic, reflecting the individual experiences they represent. One wall prominently displays large black and white portraits of all 30 PerSisters featured in the exhibition, sympathetically photographed by Allison Beondé; visitors can hear these women in their own words at stations equipped with electronic devices and headphones, and printed excerpts from their interviews accompany many of works in the show, so their voices and faces are always present.
While each work of art in Per(Sister) responds to an individual’s personal experience, many of these works also address broader issues regarding the prison system more generally. Epaul Julien’s portrait of Dolita Wilhike conscientiously recalls images of the iconic political activist Angela Davis. But in the background is a prominent American flag which, up close, is revealed to be a collage of historic images of enslaved African Americans, including the familiar schematic rendering of the notorious Brookes slave ship. We also see the script of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolishes slavery “except as punishment for a crime,” a constitutional loophole that effectively allows institutional slavery to persist in the form of the prison industrial complex. Artist Amy Elkins confronts the leasing of convicts for unpaid labor in the garment industry in particular with her site-specific wallpaper which mimics textile art, its floral imagery stitched together with the colors used for prisoners’ uniforms.
One of the most compelling stories in the exhibit is that of Bobbie Jean Johnson, imprisoned for 40 years for a murder she denied committing. She was released in 2018 with the help of the Innocence Project, which provided compelling evidence in support of Johnson’s testimony that her confession was coerced by an officer who was asphyxiating her with a plastic bag. Making the point that in the American justice system a confession is regarded as the “queen of criminal evidence,” artist Rontherin Ratliff created a large sculpture of a queen, which, in the game of chess, is the most powerful piece. But confessions are problematic, as several high-profile cases amply demonstrate– the now-exonerated “Central Park Five” come to mind.
Plenty of didactic text and informational graphic-illustrations guide viewers through the root causes of female incarceration, the impact of incarceration on mothers, the physical and mental impact of incarceration, and specific challenges women face upon re-entering society. Some specific issues addressed include the lack of access to proper healthcare, as many jails and prisons are not equipped to provide basic prenatal and postpartum care to female inmates. The show also addresses the impact of incarceration on families; nearly 80% of female incarcerates are mothers, the majority of whom are the sole caregivers to their children.
In an adjacent gallery space, the exhibition Free Your Mind complements Per(Sister) with a specific focus on incarceration in Michigan. While Michigan has fewer incarcerated individuals than other states, it leads the way in punitive sentencing, with its 33,000 inmates serving more time on average than those of any other state. This exhibition addresses four themes: the length of sentencing, the impact of incarceration on women, the impact of incarceration on youth, and the impact of COVID-19. All the works in this single-gallery space come from incarcerated individuals who have exhibited with the Prison Creative Arts Project at the University of Michigan.
Even allowing that these works were created by individuals with no formal training in art, the technical skill in some of these works is, by all standards, astonishing. Daniel Valentine’s pencil drawing of a hand holding a rose, The Scarlet Fancy, is rendered with such realism that it looks like a photograph, even when viewed from just a few inches. Sarah Yien’s small charcoal drawing I Need to Breathe, showing a body struggling to break through some sort of translucent tarp, also seems photographic, but evokes the blurred photorealism we might expect from the paintings of Gerhard Richter.
Suffragette City is a deceptively playful and visually flamboyant approach to social criticism. In this colorful watercolor and pen & ink panorama which vaguely resembles the busy pages of a Where’s Waldo book, artist Rik McDonough populates a zany cityscape with humorous, thinly veiled allegories of the social and political forces behind mass incarceration. We see armies of pawns scurrying about a dystopian cityscape, and close inspection reveals that many of the buildings in this city are rows of books, all calculatedly chosen titles (Les Misérables, Animal Farm, and 1984, for example).
Incarceration rates among women in Michigan have risen over the past ten years even as the overall statewide prison population has decreased, and much of Free Your Mind features work by women artists. Samantha Bachynski’s Rose Trellis Dream Wedding Dress, a life-sized crocheted wedding dress, is particularly evocative. As quoted in the show, Bachynski movingly says of the dress, “It’s a beautiful piece of art and I’m so proud of it, but I know I’m not going to get to do the two things I wanted to in my life: get married or be a mom. So I want someone else to feel absolutely beautiful wearing it and experience what I’m not going to experience….It’s not a complete end. I still have a life in here. It’s not the life I wanted, but it’s the life I have made for myself.”
Although these are both art shows, they’re information-heavy, and visitors should expect to read their way through much of these two exhibits. The accompanying booklet to Per(Sister) is a generous 126 pages long and is really an exhibition catalog replete with introductory essays, biographies of the participants, a brief timeline of the American prison system, and a glossary of terms. It’s perhaps cliche to describe an exhibition as thought-provoking, but the content of these shows really does have a way of getting inside one’s head, only to keep resurfacing as time passes. Together, Per(Sister) and Free Your Mind serve to amplify the voices of a population which, though sizable, remains largely invisible, and they emphatically make the point that individuals shouldn’t forfeit their humanity once they enter the carceral system.