Per(Sister): Incarcerated Women of Louisiana is a hybrid art show and educational installation making a full-throated call to activism. Across a few gallery rooms in Tulane’s Newcomb Art Museum, 30 formerly incarcerated women tell their stories—of how they became enmeshed in Louisiana’s carceral web, of life in the prison system, and life in its wake. Calling themselves “PerSisters,” these women speak in their own voices through audio recordings, with visual art generated by an artist who listened to their story and rendered these women’s lived experiences as abstract paintings, sculptures, photography, pop art imagery, and multimedia installations. I spoke with Mónica Ramírez-Montagut, one of the exhibit’s curators; Dolfinette Martin, one of the featured PerSisters (and co-curator); and Carl Joe Williams, the artist inspired by Dolfinette’s story.
Mónica Ramirez-Montagut came to Tulane’s Newcomb Art Museum in 2014, after working at art institutions across the country, from Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana in California to the Guggenheim Museum and Queens Theatre in the Park in New York City. In addition to Per(Sister), Ramírez-Montagut has brought solo exhibits of work by artists including KAWS, Diana Al-Hadid, and Andrea Dezsö to the Newcomb Museum, and has curated shows featuring work by female Australian Aboriginal artists and the art collective Fallen Fruit.
Let’s start with the genesis of this exhibit. Where did the idea come from?
I have been interested in socially engaged art for a long time. It’s something I’ve worked on in the past, these artists that find these gaps, these liminal spaces where the responsibility to move the community forward does not rely on the government or nonprofits. Often, it’s been artists articulating those needs, and helping make visible community issues that would otherwise be hidden.
When I first moved to New Orleans five years ago, I learned that Tulane had a whole center, founded after Katrina, where students were required to work for six months out in the community to help rebuild the city. So I knew that they already had a network of folks—faculty and students and community articulators—and I thought that was a perfect avenue to bring socially engaged artists into Newcomb Museum.
So I started researching: what are the big issues in New Orleans, Louisiana, our region of the South? One of the most pressing issues in Louisiana is mass incarceration. The United States [has] the highest ranking incarceration rate of developed countries, and within the states Louisiana was ranked first for a long time. Louisiana is considered the prison capital of the world. One in 75 Louisiana residents are in the prison system, and when those folks are women, you are really impacting the whole family. I began asking: why is Louisiana the prison capital of the world? What are the root causes for that?
One of the things that we realized based on reports from the Southern Poverty Law Center and others, is that in the last 40 years there has been an increase of 830% in the population of incarcerated women in Louisiana. The population of women and girls is the one that is exponentially growing. With that overarching framework, we decided to work with faculty members who were already working with formerly incarcerated women, and we hired two formerly incarcerated women as our colleagues, our partners, our equal collaborators for the exhibition. We began working with a handful of formerly incarcerated women, and word got around and more women wanted to be interviewed and tell their stories, and more artists wanted to participate.
How did the process of pairing women with artists work?
Before interviewing the PerSisters, we prepared a booklet of each of the visual artists. We gave the women the booklets, and told them to read about the artists and look at their work. Each woman went through the images, asked us questions, and chose their favorite artists. It was really an organic process based on who the women chose.
There were a couple of very young PerSisters in their early 20s who were really very curious about the art. They were inquisitive, asking a lot of questions about the artistic process. We paired those PerSisters with art professors so they would be able to establish a relationship with these partners as mentors.
What types of reactions did artists have upon initially hearing these women’s stories?
Museum staff interviewed and recorded interviews with the women, and we gave these recordings to the artists. Many of them are also musicians, hip-hop producers, and jazz composers, so we had a wide range of the arts to translate these stories as lived experiences by the women into art. The artists were a little hesitant in their own ability, wondering whether they had the cultural competency to tell these women’s stories. And that was exactly the problem we at the museum were running into as well: how do we assist the community in telling their own stories in their own way, in a space where they feel they are being represented?
How did the artists navigate that terrain? Did most of them build relationships with the women they were paired with? And what role did you and your curatorial team play in fostering generative artistic partnerships that were honest and representative of the women?
We found that the only way to do this is really to establish a partnership with the PerSisters. A lot of the artists took in the interviews, studied them, and then did their own interviews with their PerSisters; and many of them collaborated with the women in the creation of the artwork. They all felt this huge responsibility to do well by the women, and have them like the artwork.
Tell me a little bit about the experience of seeing the exhibition come together.
It was a really moving exhibition. So many faculty members are doing research on this issue. There’s expertise in the faculty and expertise in the directly impacted community, and this was one of the first times that these two levels of expertise came together to have a conversation and find common ground. The whole exhibition really built a community between directly impacted folks and not directly impacted folks, people who were not well-educated on the subject matter—which is the case for most Americans. I think most Americans really do not know this [increasing mass incarceration of women] is happening. It was really wonderful to see folks from really diverse backgrounds and ways of life coming together to learn and discuss and present this issue that really precludes us from moving forward as a community.
The range of art generated by these partnerships was just incredible. It was very surprising for us as museum staff. We read all the interviews (we transcribed them); but it was so interesting to see how the artist who heard the same interview highlighted a different portion of the story. There were so many points of access on these stories, and it was fascinating to see how we were all focusing on many different points of access, and these points of access were reflected within the gallery.
The exhibit is rife with history, narrative, and data. As a curatorial team, how did you balance your artistic vision with your educational goals?
We did not direct the artists in any way, shape, or form. We truly did not know what would be on the walls, what they would have picked up from the interviews. However, there was a lot of information we needed to get across.
We had one artist who created a beautiful, abstract painting (Anastasia Pelias’ painting inspired by Syrita Steib-Martin). So we thought: what if all the work comes in as abstract and there is very little figurative storytelling? How will we convey information that we as researchers and the women themselves want people to know about the root causes of the incarceration of women and girls? Because it really is the people of New Orleans, who might be visitors to our museum, who can really affect these issues by paying more attention to candidates for judges and other elected offices.
To build the educational content, we spoke to over 120 people: faculty members, folks that work in nonprofits, and law professors outside of Tulane. Once we had all the data-driven information, the text panels were written with the help of a lawyer so we knew we would never lose credibility. We wanted to ensure we were really presenting facts along with stories.
Our original text panel was a little dry, so we commissioned an artist to create infographics to accompany the wall text. We thought: let’s try to present this information rendered as murals on the walls, so people who want to receive the information in a more streamlined way can access it as a sort of graphic narrative. We wanted to give more points of access to help people enter the museum.
Architecture students came up with the idea of a timeline on the floor tracking the evolution of incarceration. It gives this historic grounding to the whole exhibition, and in the final room of the gallery that timeline came up the wall and opened into a tree to include the dates that were important to our PerSisters, to directly impacted people. Usually when we see timelines, it is in an institutional context that does not include the voices of directly impacted people, so we wanted to counter that trope.
One of the many amazing things about this exhibit was its accompanying programming. How did your team envision the programming schedule augmenting the exhibit itself, and how did you build the event lineup?
One of the things we acknowledged early on was that this was really a collaboration between many people. Usually, in a museum setting, it is really museum staff that gives tours during an exhibition. But with this exhibit, that did not make sense. The real knowledge here came from the women with the lived experience, sometimes the lawyers who represented them, and the nonprofits created by formerly incarcerated people to both serve and articulate the needs of formerly incarcerated people. In the same way we wanted to bring different forms of expertise to the content, we thought it was so much more rich to bring everyone’s expertise into the programming as well.
We had tours given by the women and by the artists, who talked about their journey deploying their skills to tell the stories of PerSisters in ways that would make the PerSisters proud. We asked ourselves: who has expertise that did not make it to the walls, and let’s have them give a tour. Also, what does the community need and how can the space serve those needs?
One of the ideas behind the programming was that the museum could be a platform and a safe space for civic dialogue. Some of the nonprofits who advised us requested the museum space for meetings, so the museum became a space for operations of directly impacted folks’ organizations. It’s about them, for them, and by them.
Carl Joe Williams
Carl Joe Williams is a multimedia artist working across and between disparate art forms. His paintings, sculptures, and interdisciplinary installations have been featured in museums across the South, from the Ogden and the Ashé Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans, to Nashville’s Frist Center for the Visual Arts and Charlotte’s Mint Museum. Williams is deeply invested in art that engages with the community it is born from, and has contributed to multiple public, activist art projects in New Orleans, including the anti-gentrification art of Blights Out.
Tell me a little bit about how you became one of the artists featured in the show.
I had a meeting with Mónica where we discussed the exhibition concept, and I was really interested in it. It seemed like I was going to get a chance to interact and talk with formerly incarcerated women. There was some overlap because I was also working on another project that was dealing with incarceration, so I was already doing work in that vein. That project was called Mixed Media and it was from The Blue House, which is a space where a lot of different nonprofit organizations come to do research and have meetings. One of the founders of The Blue House had the idea for a project where artists would engage with one of two different subjects—one was mass incarceration and the other was water—and the challenges the city has with water management. I chose to engage with incarceration, and my idea was to interview people who were formerly incarcerated and ask them questions about their experience in the criminal justice system. So I was actually already going to interview Dolfinette—who ended up being the woman I worked with for the Per(Sister) exhibit—for that project.
That sounds fated! Can you tell me more about your relationship with Dolfinette, and how it evolved as you worked on a piece of art inspired by her experience during and after her time in prison?
It was a twist of events. She did an interview with me and I asked her a lot of questions about her life, and we just developed a really nice rapport. We must have gotten about an hour’s worth of video, her answering questions and talking to me about her life and telling me about some of the injustices that she’s seen in the system, and really explaining how she can see how young women can get caught up in the system. She is just a really interesting person to interview and talk to; inspiring, actually, is the word. I found myself coming away from our interview a bit transformed. There was some energy that she is really putting out there that is changing a lot of people’s lives.
How did you come to the decision to include actual video testimony from Dolfinette in your portrait?
Initially, the direct testimony video was actually meant to be a part of a social media campaign around the November  election to abolish the non-unanimous jury. The video was intended to inspire people to go out and vote. In the end, I decided that since there was so much overlap, I wanted to utilize it in the piece for the Per(Sister) show.
There is a breathtaking range of pieces in the show, a truly diverse array of visual interpretations of these women’s lives. How do you see your portrait interacting with the rest of the art in the gallery?
We have a lot of different stories that are expressed in a lot of different ways. I feel like my piece is more of a portrait, but at the same time it expresses a general idea of where Dolfinette came from and who she came to be. I wanted to portray the person she evolved into. My piece is really trying to get across that human energy, and I didn’t want to do anything that was too literal.
Along with the programming, the show itself was extremely educational. How did you feel about the balance of educational and artistic content in the exhibit?
I really appreciate the emphasis on educational content. The exhibition was really beautifully thought out. To go and find all these educational components that really work: it was giving me a lot. For example, there was an entire library of books—some I was familiar with, some I was not—for people to look at related to the subject. It was really exciting to see opportunities for deeper engagement. Honest, beautifully thought out. And again: a LOT of books. I found myself sitting in a chair, reading.
Dolfinette Martin is the operations manager of Operation Restoration, a local nonprofit that works to tear down the myriad structural barriers that stand between formerly incarcerated women and long term stability after prison. Since leaving the prison system in 2012, Dolfinette has devoted countless hours to improving the arduous re-entry process for other formerly incarcerated women. She serves as a member on the Formerly Incarcerated Transitional Clinic Advisory Board, is a founding member of the New Orleans’ chapter of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, and was recently appointed by Governor Edwards to sit on the Louisiana Women’s Incarceration Task Force.
How did you first get involved with the Per(Sister) exhibit?
Mónica reached out to speak to me about the exhibit. I asked her what formerly incarcerated women had she spoken with? She then asked if we could meet to discuss and I agreed.
Do you have relationships with any of the other PerSisters? Other artists?
Absolutely, the majority of the ladies have served time with me or I have met in the past. We are all very much acquainted with each other.
What were your interactions with Carl like over the course of your storytelling process and his artistic process?
Most of my trauma was surrounded by betrayal, abandonment, or abuse inflicted by men, so for me to partner with Carl and be treated in the manner that he treated me was different, yet very much appreciated. He wanted to hear what I had to say and paid close attention to every word. He made it easy to interact with because he didn’t approach the conversation telling me what he wanted. He asked me, “What did I want?” That was different.
Did you find telling your story and seeing artwork generated from it cathartic?
Absolutely! It was refreshing to talk about my trauma and see a work of art created in such a beautiful way was mind blowing!
How do you feel about his finished piece?
Carl is a genius! I think his work is unique because it represents the Black community through its vibrant colors and unique storytelling through the lens of both him and the subject. He took my pain and created a piece of healing that spoke volumes to every person who saw it.
You’re involved with so many organizations working to improve formerly incarcerated women’s re-entry experience. Were any of those—National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, Operation Restoration, Formerly Incarcerated Transitional Clinic Advisory Board—involved in the exhibition or any of its accompanying events?
Operation Restoration was definitely a part of it. Syrita Steib-Martin was one of the consultants along with me, and my fellow PerSister. Also, myself and Operation Restoration did the outreach to bring in most of the women in the exhibit.
How do you understand being a part of this art project as another vector of the multitude of public service work you do?
I see this work as a vector of service because until we [PerSisters] told these stories, white society was clueless to the plight Black and brown women endure before, during, and after prison.
What kinds of activist art would you like to see in New Orleans in the future?
I would definitely like to see work of directly impacted women! There are so many amazing artists inside of prison and most of them make money in prison by drawing masterpieces for little or nothing. I would like to see their work showcased.
Per(Sister) is on view through November 15 at the Diboll Gallery at the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, 1440 Canal Street. For more info, check out persister.info.
(photos by Adrienne Battistella)
Top Image: “Whispers to God, Being Here When Women Need Me to Be Here! (Based on a discussion and interview with PerSister Dolfinette Martin)” by Carl Jo Williams