Disrupting death row

Artist Ndume Olatushani’s exhibit will benefit the Free Pervis Payne Campaign and the Innocence Project.


What connection does Ndume Olatushani, exonerated former death row inmate from Tennessee, have with Martha’s Vineyard? There’s no short answer as to how it came about that a group of activists from the Island decided to host a show of the wrongly convicted former death row inmate/artist/activist’s work on the Island, but it’s a story worth hearing — and one that exemplifies the dedication and commitment, as well as the national outreach that the Martha’s Vineyard Black Lives Matter (MVBLM) has shown over the course of the year-and-a-half that the initiative has been active.

The MVBLM group sprang up organically shortly after the murder of George Floyd last May. The story that gripped the nation and led to marches, protests, and rallies nationwide also mobilized Vineyarders to initiate a weekly gathering at Beetlebung Corner in Chilmark, where members would share stories of victims of police violence and take a knee in silence, in remembrance of these wronged individuals. When the weather got colder, the group decided to continue on with the meetings over Zoom throughout the fall and winter. At some point the group decided to extend their focus to victims of racial disparity in the justice system. They also wanted to mobilize the large group that had become involved at that point to outreach and activism.

In March one of the members shared the story of Pervis Payne, a Black man with an intellectual disability who has maintained his innocence for 33 years while on death row in Tennessee. A letter-writing and fundraising campaign began to try to save Payne’s life. Through various connections made through their efforts, the MVBLM group was introduced to artist Ndume Olatushani, who served time on death row with Payne.

Ndume began painting during the early years of his incarceration. In an interview with Arts & Ideas magazine, he said, “Even though I was physically confined like I was, art allowed me to maintain a sense of freedom. I didn’t let the people that was holding me there get inside my head, so to say. Because the one thing I knew was that, even though they had me physically there, and they could do whatever they wanted to me, the thing that I always knew was that they couldn’t control my mind or my thoughts.”

During his 28 years in prison (20 on death row) Ndume painted prodigiously. Although he has had no formal art education, he paints with the skill of a trained artist. His vivid figurative images often depict scenes from Africa — men, women, and children in colorful traditional garb engaged in the everyday activities common to their native surroundings. Oftentimes Ndume conveys politicized statements in his work.

A fervent anti-death-penalty and anti-mass incarceration advocate, Ndume was more than happy to help MVBLM’s efforts to save Payne. In mid-April, he joined one of virtual vigils and, in an interview with Susan Sarandon, shared his own story. The group established a relationship with Ndume and decided to host an exhibit of his artwork here on the Island.

Kara Taylor offered her West Tisbury gallery for the show and fundraiser, which will take place in conjunction with the exhibit titled “Disrupt Death Row: Art & Justice.”

“Ethically, I agreed to this show because art can, and should, play an effective role in changing social perspectives and more work that speaks to the injustices such as Ndume’s story should be shown on this Island,” says Taylor. “I’m so looking forward to meeting Ndume in person. I’m sure it will be an emotional evening at the event. May justice prevail for Pervis and all the wrongfully convicted.”

“Disrupt Death Row: Art & Justice” will take place on Saturday, July 31, in a tent next to the Kara Taylor Gallery. The show will feature new work by Ndume Olatushani, who will be at the fundraiser, along with Pervis Payne’s lawyer and his sister. The event will benefit the Free Pervis Payne Campaign and Innocence Project. The art show will hang at the Kara Taylor Gallery from Sunday, August ,1 through Thursday, August 5, from 11 am to 5 pm daily. There will be an opening reception with the artist on Sunday, August 1, from 3 to 5 pm.