Former ‘Lifer” Becomes 1st ‘Artist in Residence’ for Philly District Attorney’s Office

Press conference announcing the DA Artist in Residency program with inaugural artist James “Yaya” Hough, November 21, 2019. Photo by Edwin E. Luks.

By Susana Jurado

PHILADELPHIA – The District Attorney’s Office officially appointed its first ever “Artist in Residence,” James “Yaya” Hough, and created its first ever virtual panel art discussion on the new art exhibit he created, “Points of Connection.”

Three organizations that have publicly voiced their support for Hough, a formerly convicted lifer as a juvenile, and his DAO residency are the Mural Arts Philadelphia, Fair and Just Prosecution, and the Art for Justice Fund.

Throughout the panel discussion, Hough unveiled a number of portrait pieces which will be displayed throughout the city of Philadelphia in places like the District Attorney’s Office, City Hall, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA), Eastern State Penitentiary, and Beckett Life Center.

Miriam Aroni Krinsky, founder and executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution. called his work simple and yet revolutionary, as she went on to describe the impact of his artwork as a driver for changing perspectives and creating this necessary unsettling transformation on the status quo.

She repeatedly thanked him for his distinctive pieces and the motivations that inspired him to accomplish a variety of expressive meanings through his art.

According to Krinsky, with Hough’s history of falling prey to the judicial criminal system, he was considered the perfect candidate for this position as he was often described to be a man who not only got the vision, but “who has lived the vision. We needed someone who had the passion and the commitment to want to change the criminal justice system and we knew (it was him) the minute he came forward.”

Helena Huang, Project Director of Art for Justice Fund, went on to discuss her thoughts on his pieces as refreshing solutions that can fulfill the growing problems of our criminal legal system which was serving no one, at great cost to everyone.

Huang highlighted that this project could not have come at a better time, especially since the world is in such peril over racial justice reckoning, and the need to address these issues is readily apparent and fulfilled through the promotion of these unique portraits.

Since this will be the first ever residency art program occurring inside the District Attorney’s Office, Huang pointed out that this will be a bold move that is working toward changing the culture and “unlikely allies coming together to disrupt the narratives (of society) as James, the artist, and prosecutors in the DA’s Office Larry Krasner are all coming together to create this compelling story.

“I think we as a nation are hungering (for that change) and we are so proud to play a small role in supporting you all,” Huang added.

Agnes Gund, an art collector and main sponsor of the Art for Justice Fund, was so satisfied with the work Hough had achieved that she announced a new grant will be given to support the organization’s continued collaboration with Hough as well as to add a published “portrait book of 10 Visionary prosecutors working to shrink justice system and build safer and healthier and fairer communities.

“James has agreed to curate and contribute to this project. We know art will spark understanding and awareness where traditional methods of engagement fall short. I’m confident this book will help lift up the human and Community impact of the inequities of our current justice system and spark support for progressive reforms,” Gund added.

Jane Golden, the Director of the Mural Arts Foundation, gave her take on the journey she observed of Hough and expressed the undertones of what his artwork encompasses by noting, “And putting an artist in a system, in a city system, or a department like the DA’s office can be transformative and also through James paintings, what he reminds us is he was able to shine a light on our distinctions and underscore our commonality and more importantly, our humanity.”

One of the portraits Hough made presented District Attorney Krasner, a lawyer he said inspired him to continue to fight for his cause.

DA Krasner detailed some aspects of the portraits that he found to be fascinating and came to terms with ideas that come to mind when observing these pieces.

“The vulnerability and powerlessness of the defendants that were presented in these art pieces and then for prosecutors who maybe have too much power, but they are all represented in their humanity and their similarity in the things that they have in common,” commented DA Krasner,

“That’s the common format to how their portraits are presented. That’s the kind of unity artists know how to bring in and a kind of division they know how to overcome,” he added.

Some of Hough’s portraits portray reformed ex-convicts who go on to be transformational movement leaders in improving the communities of Philadelphia, while exposing the neglected injustices often targeting people of color.

On the other hand, he also went on to express portraits of district attorneys and judges who are still making a difference today through their ongoing involvement in transformative initiatives to fight against a system of injustice.

Hough discussed some of the questions that came to mind when creating these pieces and noted how his decades of experience with the criminal justice system as a former convict led him to question the underrepresented ideals this system supposedly promotes itself to be.

Additionally, he also observed how impactful the different aspects to social life and justice, such as race and the economy, play a role in the receipt of true justice in an imperfect system.

“This (experience) probably means to me on a personal level, obviously as someone who has been punished by the criminal justice system, experienced the loads of it, I have seen the potentiality for change in that system, reform in that system,” said Hough.

“And seeing reformers come, particularly in light of DA Krasner, his current victory as the Philadelphia district attorney. Seeing bright reformers come and effect change, I find that to be inspiring, we just need more of that. This (art) residency represents to me the beginning of a new way of solving some very old problems,” he added.

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About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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