“We are mothers, grandmothers, daughters, aunts, wives, girlfriends”
“Art has healing power,” Syrita Steib said by phone from New Orleans’ Ochsner Medical Center, where she’s spent the last few weeks temporarily working shifts as a medical laboratory scientist in a microbiology lab combatting COVID-19. “It’s healing for the person who is being portrayed, the subject as well as the artist.”
Steib, in addition to her lab work, runs the New Orleans nonprofit Operation Restoration, dedicated to helping currently and formerly incarcerated women receive educational, occupational and housing opportunities. Steib is also one of 30 formerly incarcerated women driving “(Per)Sister: Incarcerated Women of Louisiana,” an exhibition at the Ford Foundation that examines the prison system through the stories of those who experienced it.
Organized by Tulane University’s Newcomb Art Museum, the show presents the work of more than 30 artists in collaboration with the women known as “persisters” — a self-coined term representing perseverance, persistence and resilience. Each original piece is based on the life story of a single woman, highlighted and refracted to illuminate the critical issues facing incarcerated women nationwide.
Perhaps nowhere in America is the incarceration epidemic more acute than in the state of Louisiana, which ranks highest in the nation for imprisonment rates, garnering it the colloquial title of “the world’s prison capital.” With a total population of just over 4.6 million, more than 50,000 individuals remain incarcerated in prisons, jails, immigration detention, and juvenile justice facilities.
Over the last 40 years, the number of incarcerated women nationwide has grown over 750% — double that of men, with women at the state level more likely to be imprisoned for property or drug offenses. Among this population, more than 60% of women in state prisons have children under the age of 18. Many of these women are victims themselves, with up to 86% reporting past sexual, domestic or caregiver violence.
The statistics on female incarceration, both in Louisiana and nationwide, point to much larger societal, systemic and social injustices, making it all the more surprising that “Per(Sister)” is one of the few comprehensive art exhibitions to examine the causes and effects of imprisonment on one of our country’s most vulnerable populations.
“For a lot of the women, [the “(Per)Sister” exhibition] was their first time speaking publicly about what led them to prison,” Steib said. “We had one woman who had been arrested twelve times, all for shoplifting, who had five kids. No one had ever asked her why she’s stealing.”
“Per(Sister)” — which opened this spring just before New York City’s widespread COVID-19 shutdowns and is now available to view in a digital gallery on the Ford Foundation website — seeks to build awareness of this specific facet of the prison epidemic. Each “persister” has been paired with an artist who has created a work inspired by her story, employing a wide range of media, from graphic novel-style wall panels, sculptures and paintings to songs and performances.
“It became much more than an exhibition,” Monica Ramirez-Montague, director and chief curator at Tulane’s Newcomb Art Museum and organizer of “Per(Sister),” said. “For these women, it’s the story of their lives. They’ve had every possible obstacle, and they’ve overcome them.”
To authentically curate the show, Ramirez-Montague worked closely over several years with Steib and Dolfinette Martin, another “persister,” to gain the trust and involvement of the community.
“Together, we decided the focus, the themes — they were at the table for every single decision,” Ramirez-Montague said. “We wanted true self-representation.”
The exhibition is divided into four sections, featuring participating New Orleans-based artists, including Kira Akerman, Ron Bechet, Lee Deigaard and Nubian OmiSayad Sun, with new music from Lynn Drury, Sarah Quintana, Queen Blackkoldmadina, Spirit McIntyre, Keith Porteous and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, along with the photographic portraits of Allison Beondé.
“Our stories are unique, but they’re the same — they’re all rooted in trauma,” said Dolfinette, whose life was made into a vibrant multi-paneled wall tableau by artist Carl Joe Williams. “I thought I’d go to my grave with these stories, but I know this work is bigger than me. I have to share what led me through to the place I am now.”
Dolfinette explained that her greatest hope is for another woman to hear that she’s made it out, and be inspired. Currently, Dolfinette works with Steib at Operation Restoration as an operations manager, sits on the board of the Formerly Incarcerated Transitional Clinic Advisory and is a panelist on the Criminal Background Check Review Panel for the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO).
“We are mothers, grandmothers, daughters, aunts, wives, girlfriends,” Dolfinette said. “We’ve made choices based on our situations and our circumstances, but once I was given access to resources, I was able to hit the ground running.”
Dolita Wilhike, who worked with artist Epaul Julien to create a mixed-media collage in partial homage to Angela Davis, said she “never thought in a million years that people would be interested in our hardships.”
She continued: “The artist was genuinely interested in my struggles, my fears, my failures and my great comeback.”
Today, Wilhike works at the homeless shelter “CHNO” as an aftercare/outreach specialist, nurturing the program’s children and helping them reunite with family to rebuild their lives. For her, the project wasn’t just about closure — it was about hope. “I needed someone, somewhere, to know that if I could do it so can they,” she said.
While the exhibition may close before New York City reopens, its website has been updated to include video, a downloadable exhibition catalog and interviews with the “persisters” through SoundCloud. The project may also gain a second life with a future iteration focused on the juvenile criminal justice system.
“We need to understand why we are incarcerating our children and our young adults for life,” said Montague. “We are never going to break this cycle if we don’t intervene early on.”
Top Image: "13th," Epaul Julien, 2018. Photo: Newcomb Art Museum of Tulane University.