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Break the Silence

Public Humanities

July 5, 2018

by Alexandra Germer


projection of the self

one is nothing

one is not definable

woman is not definable

man is not definable

woman will be what she makes of herself

man will be what he makes of himself

existence precedes essence

after that leap towards existence

we are left alone, without excuse.”

Found words poem by an incarcerated artist at a detention center in New York

This poem is comprised of slips of paper containing lines from philosophical texts which have been rearranged to create new meanings and overlaid on magazine images. The text is placed over a photograph of a woman, blond hair sticking out in buns on either side of her head, her body swathed in red frilled fabric. She stands with her head held high, her eyes closed, back foot at a slight angle. Her stance is stable and powerful, and her unusual attire renders her inscrutable, or perhaps “not definable.” But the text in combination with the image adds an element of complexity to this diagnosis of the human condition. Despite its power, her stance is solitary and defenseless—she is undeniably “alone, without an excuse.” But instead of shame, she exudes power, strength, even defiance.

This work was a part of an exhibition of art by women incarcerated artist at detention centers in New York, shown in three locations on Columbia’s campus this winter. Last fall, I spoke with Mia Ruyter, the education and outreach manager of the Heyman Center for Humanities and a teacher of art classes at jails in New York. We discussed organizing an exhibit on campus to display work by students in her art classes in jails. I attended a few of those art classes, each of which focused on a different female artist of color and different technique. In one such class, we examined the portraits of Toyin Ojih Odutola and Amy Sherald, then practiced portrait drawing. The artists were talented, much better than I am. One woman drew a portrait of a man with intricate tattoos, while pointing out to us which of her many real-life tattoos she had done herself. Throughout the class, a sense of calm would prevail, as students listened to music and worked on their projects. Though the assignments were rather freeform—a few women painted beaches rather than faces on portrait day—their progress was clear, and their initial frustration and discouragement was overcome. I felt that the creation of art was intimate for these artists; in the absence of formal training, the biological and biographical informs much of their work. In one series, photo collages of a New York City block, I saw glimmers of the familiar, a glimpse into their lives.

Invisible Women combined works from three series, from three units of the art class. The series of collages inspired by Romare Bearden's The Block (1971) offers the artists' accounts of New York and beyond, of life outside the confines of jail. The scenes are at once familiar and surreal, evincing a glossy chaos of juxtaposed architecture, inhabitants, and food. The second series, of which the woman in red is a part, uses for its point of departure works of philosophy and Medieval literature—Sartre, Nietzsche, Andrea Alciato and Christine de Pizan—found words, creating new meaning through their combination with found images. A third is a series of watercolor portraits of the artists' faces, profiles, and spirits. At times political, aspirational, representational, and escapist, these works serve as a testament to the artists' perseverance, to their humor and talent, but more importantly to their humanity.

In the last few months since the exhibit closed, some students have been released. One particularly prolific student was even able to attend the opening reception of the exhibit at the Heyman Center. But others remain behind bars, some awaiting trials indefinitely. One class, we celebrated a student’s birthday. But the celebration, complete with singing happy birthday and eating her favorite snack, was bittersweet. She was turning 22, which meant she was no longer eligible for education classes and daily programs like the art class, and would be transferred to another housing unit.

Last June, Mayor de Blasio announced his plans to close Rikers and replace them with smaller jails in each of the five boroughs. America has the highest rates of incarceration, containing over 2.3 million people in local, state, and federal jails and prisons. America’s industrial prison complex and the systemic mass incarceration overwhelmingly affects people of color. Many of the students I worked with in art classes grew up on blocks not far from mine, but due to different circumstances, and the different hands they were dealt, they are eight miles from campus in jail, while I am in class. This exhibit did not have any real tangible effect on the artists’ lives. But it is my hope that they felt validation from their work and their progress, and that they know that their voice matters and has a place on Columbia’s campus. That they know we want to hear from them, we respect them, and we are listening.

In the exhibit, the work with the woman in red hung near another image of women, here with their backs to us, facing their desks. “woman is the entire responsibility/ we do mean that/ nothing can be better for us/ in anxiety she must choose herself.” A powerful reminder that the odds are stacked against these artists, and yet, their talent, patience, and perseverance prevails. One day in class, a few students spoke of their plans to be public speakers when they get home. They will, I know, be powerful speakers one day, and when they do, I hope we will listen.

Invisible Women has been shown at the Heyman Center for Humanities in East Campus, the Barnard Tunnel Gallery, and in Alfred Lerner Hall.