Wrongfully convicted artist shows off work at federal courthouse
Ndume Olatushani spent 28 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit, but on Monday he had an opportunity to put a twist on his latest court appearance as he unveiled his artwork in a show titled “Perseverance” in the Charles P. Sifton Gallery at the U.S. District Court in Downtown Brooklyn.
“While Mr. Olatushani is not a son of the Eastern District, his story and his art very much reflect the spirit of the work that goes on in this courthouse,” Chief Judge Dora Irizarry said at the gallery opening. “The exhibit is aptly named ‘Perseverance’ for Mr. Olatushani’s struggle to seek justice and beauty under seemingly impossible circumstances.”
Olatushani, who was born Erskine Johnson, was raised in the housing projects of St. Louis. In 1985, when he was just 25 years old, he was convicted in the shooting death of a grocery store owner and sentenced to death by an all-white jury despite witnesses who put him nearly four hours away from the murder at the time it happened.
Olatushani’s attorney at the time had no experience trying a capital punishment case and was woefully unprepared during sentencing.
“His family in St. Louis scraped together every last cent to replace his public defender with a ‘real’ lawyer,” said Chief Magistrate Judge Roanne L. Mann, whose husband played a role in Olatushani’s defense team that freed him from prison. “Unfortunately, they got what they paid for — an attorney who never tried a capital case and who did nothing to uncover exculpatory evidence suppressed by the prosecution or to prepare in advance for the penalty phase.”
After just two years of being in prison, where he sat on death row for roughly 20 years, Olatushani met a fellow inmate who was a painter. Olatushani commissioned a portrait of himself from the man that he intended to give to his mother. Before the painting was finished and just two years into his sentence, Olatushani’s mother died tragically in a car accident and he was never able to give her the painting.
“The portrait he did didn’t look anything like me,” Olatushani said. “I’m sitting in this 4-by-9 foot cell, I can’t even stretch my arms out, I’m in there 23 hours a day looking at this so-called portrait and I’m thinking that I could have done a better job and kept my money.
“It wasn’t until after my mother was in this car accident and I was trying to pick myself back up off the ground from that when I actually found art,” he continued. “I just started drawing first and I got really good with pencil and ink drawing. I had some on the wall, I kept looking at them and thinking something was off. I had this eureka moment where I said, ‘Ok, color.’”
From that point on, Olatushani began painting vibrantly of African figures. He explained that the vividness of the colors was a way for him to rebel against his situation.
“In prison the paint on the wall is dull or white — if there is paint at all — and using color was my form of resistance,” Olatushani said. “I found freedom in colors. Even though I was physically sitting where I was, the one thing I had control over was my mind and my thoughts. I refused to let the colorless environment mess with my head. It allowed me to stand in front of you as a whole person today.”
Olatushani said that all of the paintings are deeply personal and that he often painted what he wanted to see while he was in his cell. One of his paintings, titled “Blind Faith,” depicts a young boy crossing a river where people are in the water up to their necks and a blind person is pointing trying to lead the way.
“That was part of carried me through — knowing that I shouldn’t have been there in the first place, but also having the opportunity to have people believe in me,” he said. “I knew I had to step out on faith. Any one of my paintings have a message behind them.”
It wasn’t until 2004 when an Appellate Court vacated his death penalty conviction. He was resentenced to life in prison, but in 2011 he finally had his conviction vacated and he was released in 2012.
Today, Olatushani lives with his wife Anne-Marie Moyes and his daughter Safiya Moyes, and he works as an advocate against the death penalty and mass incarceration. He also works as a mentor for kids living in Nashville’s housing projects. At the close of the opening, he challenged the judges and lawyers in attendance to tell his story to others as a way to raise awareness of the wrongfully convicted.
“I’m so humbled and honored by this experience — there aren’t words to express how I feel,” he said. “I’m so moved to see the amount of people here today. It’s so hard to capture this in words what it really means to me. So much was taken from me in 28 years that I was in prison, but I stand before you as such a fortunate person.”
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