The word justice is something that has caused a lot of controversy this year. In 2020 alone, this country has seen protests and the start of a cultural revolution specifically after the death of George Floyd and many others in similar circumstances that were before and followed. However, after one previously incarcerated artist who now works regularly with Mural Arts Philadelphia got involved with a new residency program, he found that the future of justice might be more hopeful than we think.
Artist James “Yaya” Hough was selected to participate in a groundbreaking artist residency which also happens to be the first one in a District Attorney’s office in the United States. The project is meant to give a formerly-incarcerated artist the chance to examine criminal justice through an artistic lens, which Hough did through portraits of people belonging in three specific groups.
“I thought that portraits were the way to go surrounding criminal justice issues that involved real people,” says Hough. “I wanted to do something representative of people and I thought that was a great starting point.”
This new series of work was created in partnership with Mural Arts Philadelphia and Fair and Just Prosecution, and was one of the Activating Art and Advocacy projects funded by support from Art for Justice. The series, titled ‘Points of Connection’ will be on display across the city, and is meant to offer the public “a chance to engage in direct dialogue on criminal justice reform issues.”
Hough worked with formerly incarcerated returning citizens, victims’ advocates, and members of the District Attorney’s office to create this series and paint a bigger picture of what justice means to individuals who have dealt with it the most. The artist says most of his subjects came from referrals or word of mouth, but some he knew, such as Michael “Smokey” Wilson.
“Michael Smokey Wilson I had known for a number of years and he’s someone I definitely wanted to [talk too.] In a residency like this, he spoke to things that characterized his life for the past 50 years. So I really wanted to highlight him as someone important in the criminal justice landscape in Philadelphia,” says Hough.
When the residency first began, the pandemic was still on the horizon. After March, everything changed for everyone, but Hough forged on and built connections virtually to help make the series still happen.
According to the release, to commemorate the residency, Hough’s portraits will be displayed in several contexts that underscore the theme of reimagining justice and the accessibility of the arts. All of the portraits will be incorporated into a single large-scale vinyl print installed on the windows of the District Attorney’s Office. Smaller printed keepsake versions of the portraits will be packaged as a portable exhibition, available for free at special events and by postal mail, and delivered to municipal offices, criminal justice sites, and selected schools throughout Philadelphia. Additionally, several of the physical painted portraits will be installed at sites of art and justice throughout Philadelphia as a gesture to remind viewers of the power of storytelling and coalitions to change the way justice and art connect.
For Hough, this work has been a culmination of years of effort to help those who have been or will be in similar situations.
“It’s been a dream,” explains Hough. “Before I left prison, I want to say I did a decade of advocacy work based around families—fathers and children trying to stop the school to prison pipeline and the community to prison pipeline. So the roots that I have in Philadelphia have been forged through some really, really difficult circumstances, however, they are beautiful roots. What I’m getting at is that I’ve received so many beautiful messages from people that I’ve served time with that are currently engaged with that activism. They’re on lockdown for the most part and they watch a lot of news, so when they see me doing this residency, they’ve been supercharged and encouraged. Speaking of hope and optimism, it’s the air they breathe and it’s their lives. In my experience, I’ve met with many people who also yearn to get out of prison after a long and rigorous personal transformation and do this type of work in the city that they love and try to bring some conclusion to it of peace and justice in the city.”
Philadelphians will be able to view these portraits online as well, or if you would rather see it personally and can’t make it to the DAO, there are a few other options. Hough’s work will also be on display at City Hall outside of the Mayor’s office, at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, at the Eastern State Penitentiary and the Beckett Life Center. Hough will also be leading a walking tour of the installations which will take place on Oct. 31st.
Justice has been a difficult concept to swallow when still in the helm of current events, but ‘Points of Connection’ gave Hough hope, and the positivity was across the board.
“Justice remains elusive, but people particularly in this residency, they do have distinct ideas of what justice is. It’s a spectrum, but to me, that spectrum is really positive and it’s hopeful,” explains Hough. “I think across the board, people had a vision of not necessarily what was, or they were willing to forgo the vision of what is for the vision of what can be. I think they definitely see that in the DA’s office under Larry Krasner and they see that in other places in city government and reflected in the community through advocacy work primarily. Even though there are tremendous issues, people have a hopeful vision. I was not shocked by the optimism, but encouraged.”
When asked what thoughts he would want to leave the people of Philadelphia with regarding this project, the artist echoed his subjects in the series with optimism, specifically regarding the efforts of DA Larry Krasner.
“Philadelphia is one of the greatest cities in the country easily, people should be proud to have not only a really, great historic city, but they should be proud to have a DA like Larry Krasner. [He’s] someone who’s committed to justice,” says Hough. “Many things we see around the country that involve District Attorneys not being aggressive enough, those things wouldn’t happen in Philadelphia. As far as citizens being murdered and police not being held accountable, he presents a nice checks and balance with law enforcement that I think citizens and particularly those of color are glad to have.”
For more information, visit muralarts.org