MSU Broad Exhibits & Events Highlight Incarceration

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Courtesy the Prison Creative Arts Project, University of Michigan.

Rafael De Jesus, The Way It Is, 2014.

Just as art reflects life, Michigan State University Broad Art Museum Executive Director Mónica Ramírez-Montagut believes art museums need to address matters that are relevant in the surrounding community’s everyday lives. 

The latest fall 2021 exhibitions at the Broad focus on the issue of mass incarceration in the U.S. The roster of six exhibits includes: 

  • Per(Sister): Incarcerated Women of the United States.
  • Free Your Mind: Art + Incarceration in Michigan (an accompanying major installment). 
  • Silenced: Voices from Solitary.
  • Exposure to Light: Pinhole Photography. 
  • Making Space: Designing Youth Futures
  • Connections, New Beginnings: Artists in Transition (located at the Art Lab across Grand River Avenue from the museum).

The exhibits detail stories of loss, despair, hope, triumph, and persistence through various mediums, including painting, drawings, photography, sculpture, video, zines, and music. These mediums explore mass incarceration in different groups of people: the youth, women, and even local Michiganders. 

Ramírez-Montagut spoke about the exhibition’s extreme relevance to life in America. 

“One issue that has precluded us from moving forward together as a society in the U.S. has been mass incarceration,” she said. “The U.S. has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the world. For example, the incarceration rate nationwide for women and girls has grown 834% over the past 40 years. Women and girls have not changed that much, the system has changed and is directly impacting this community. The exhibition explains more of that system.”

Ramírez-Montagut hopes this exhibit will encourage connectivity among community members, even if they are unfamiliar with one another, or not visible to each other. 

“[The exhibits] encourage us to also learn through the arts, from each other and find common ground where we thought there was none,” she said. “They humanize our connections to our communities, particularly communities that have been historically rendered invisible, such as incarcerated women and children; and to build awareness on critical issues on which we all have agency.”

While working on curating the Per(Sister): Incarcerated Women of the United States exhibit, Ramírez-Montagut learned facts that startled her and impacted her view on incarceration. 

Per(Sister): Incarcerated Women of Louisiana, installation view at the Newcomb Art Museum of Tulane University, 2019. Per(Sister) is a traveling exhibition developed by the Newcomb Art Museum of Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.

“I learned that the vast majority of women at the time of their encounter with the justice system are victims on their own,” Ramírez-Montagut said. 

“Learning that 86% of them have experienced sexual violence, 82% of them suffer of substance use dependence, 60% are unemployed, and 32% have a serious mental illness changed my perception of a justice system that incarcerates our most vulnearble populations,” she said.

Often, the curators hope that the exhibit will educate visitors and act as a catalyst for change and reform as the public begins to better understand the issue.

“Learning about the mass incarceration of women and youth is fundamental for understanding a system that we all participate in through our vote, and through our local elections that are essential for maintaining or reforming the system,” Ramírez-Montagut said. 

“The future of our country relies on interdependence and for the most vulnerable to do well. The mass incarceration of our fellow Americans (men, women, boys, and girls) through the prison-industrial complex is at a critical point that requires for us all to know about and implement our agency,” she said.

The exhibition was curated by Senior Curator and Director of Curatorial Affairs Steven L. Bridges and Janie Paul, Senior Curator and Cofounder of Annual Exhibitions of Art by Michigan Prisoners, a project of the Prison Creative Arts Project at the University of Michigan.

Coinciding events also celebrate the exhibition, starting with an opening reception (free and open to the public) on Thursday, Sept. 9, from 7 to 9 p.m. Artists, curators, and community members will be in the galleries to engage in conversation with attendees. 

Friday, Sept. 10, from 6:30 to 8 p.m., a ticketed Fairchild Theater event will feature an insightful presentation and a concert of artwork put to music. MSU Professors of Jazz will join jazz composer and New Orleans pianist Victor Atkins. (Details on how to purchase tickets are forthcoming.)

Courtesy the Prison Creative Arts Project, University of Michigan.

Samantha Bachynski, Rose Trellis Dream Wedding Dress, 2019, on display in the Free Your Mind Exhibit.

Sunday, Sept. 12, from 4 to 5:30 p.m. will consist of an open forum and panel discussion at the MSU Broad Art Museum. Co-curators Paul and Bridges will join Kimiko Uyeda and Guillermo Delgado for thematic talks on the exhibition Free Your Mind: Art and Incarceration in Michigan. 

The MSU Broad Museum is open for face-to-face visitors Friday-Sunday from noon to 6 p.m. Admission to the museum is free. Tickets can be reserved online

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