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Ndume Olatushani, 59, has every excuse to be bitter. But almost five years removed from a Tennessee prison, he doesn’t dwell on the 27 years he spent behind bars—20 on death row—serving time for a murder he didn’t commit.
“I was in a four by nine foot cell. I couldn’t even stretch my damn arms out in the cell. I’m sitting in there 23 hours a day. I couldn’t draw a crooked line straight … but art found me. I taught myself how to paint,” he says.
His artwork caught the attention of the United Methodist Church—so much so that the body commissioned him to present an exhibit to coincide with Lent, the 40-day period each spring commemorating the days leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion, and resurrection on Easter.
Starting today at The United Methodist building on Capitol Hill, which sits across the street from the Supreme Court, Olatushani’s latest work will be unveiled. This piece, entitled “Disrupting the Cradle to Prison Pipeline,” is the first stop in a total of 14 Stations of the Cross throughout D.C. Olatushani’s piece is one of a few new works, while several are existing D.C. monuments and art pieces, each meant to represent one of the 14 images depicting Jesus’ crucifixion day—a widely-used visual story central to many Christian denominations.
His piece features a cage with a man inside wearing a prison jump suit. Models of three more men in orange jumpsuits stand behind it. One man is in a praying position and another with his arms raised, as if obeying an order from an officer or gunman. The work also gives a nod to Trayvon Martin, as it includes a replica of a young man wearing a hooded sweatshirt.
“It’s a prime location,” Olatushani says, regarding its placement across from the Supreme Court. “The whole thing we’re trying to achieve is to challenge people’s perception of the justice system,” he says. “The exhibit is exactly where it’s supposed to be.”
Olatushani also does art work with children through the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF). He hopes to help black children avoid what he and others refer to as the “cradle to prison pipeline.”
One of his recent exhibits involved giving school desks to groups of kids at 12 different locations, including community centers, churches, and schools. Olatushani and the CDF gave the children tests to reveal what they knew about the justice system. He then introduced them to videos and documentaries about the system and spoke about his time in prison. Afterward, he separately told each group to create art using the desk. With Olatushani monitoring and providing supplies, one group painted its desk black and attached handcuffs and a bible to the desk. The bible, Olatushani says, represented the church’s complicity in the justice system. The students thought churches were compliant by allowing injustices to happen within the justice system and not doing anything. Another group turned its desk into an electric chair, adding a switch for a light and attaching a headpiece. This was symbolic of Olatushani’s time spent on death row.
Art, he says, in a lot of ways saved his life and helped him cope with his unjust sentence. Not only was his painting a minor escape from his prison-bound reality, but it also put him in position to meet a woman that he would later marry upon his release. “She was working for this anti-death penalty organization that used to host art shows for those of us on death row. Through my art, we developed a connection.” The two waited to wed because they didn’t want to hold their ceremony on prison grounds.
Based on Olatushani’s prison stint, fighting for his release, and the way his trial played out, he is convinced that the prosecution never believed he was guilty. Olatushani says that the prison industry is a business, hell-bent on arresting young people of color in order to keep turning a profit. According to him, the prosecution did not care that he was innocent.
“I use art to try to engage young people to let them know that while you’re running around playing─hell it’s people looking at kids in the second and third grade based on their reading and test scores, projecting how many prison beds they’re gonna need,” says Olatushni.
Jeania Ree Moore, who helped plan his new Lent exhibit through her job at the General Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church, says she wants passersby to “get a reality of the issues at stake” that are deeply rooted in the criminal justice system. She is responsible for bringing Olatushani on-board, and she hopes people are ultimately moved to take action against the various layers of injustice in the justice system. Rev. Dr. Susan Henry-Crowe, of the same office, says: “This art, we hope, will help people understand more the effects of mass incarceration and some of the injustices that many times African American men and brown men face in our society.”
Olatushani hopes his art will help youth avoid encounters like he has had with the justice system. “I would hope that people get in some dialogue, begin to talk about and learn about this particular issue,” he says.
“Because the reality is that knowledge makes us responsible. Once you know something, you have no excuse.”