James “Yaya” Hough (all images courtesy of Mural Arts Philadelphia)

Artist residencies can take place in all sorts of spaces — in big cities or rural communities, in or outside of large institutions. But muralist James “Yaya” Hough will join a first of its kind residency in the United States, taking place at a district attorney’s office. Funded by Art for Justice, a nonprofit that focuses on bringing creativity to the criminal justice system, and in collaboration with Mural Arts Philadelphia and Fair and Just Prosecution, the new artist-in-residence program will begin this month at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office (DAO). 

When Hough was announced as the first artist to work with the DAO in November 2019, he was only a few months out from a 27-year prison sentence. He began his artistic practice behind prison walls after he was sentenced to life in prison for murder when he was 17. But in 2012, the Supreme Court deemed it unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to life, and he was released.

Hough began working with Mural Arts Philadelphia in 2006 while still in prison and has since publicly shared his experience of finding art and the potential for programs that focus on reforming over penalizing those in the criminal justice system. “I am humbled and honored to receive this residency,” Hough told NBC Philadelphia. “I feel that my whole life has been leading to this moment.”

Artwork by James “Yaya” Hough

“They were well aware of artistically what I am capable of, but also on another level, my commitment to these types of issues,” Hough told Hyperallergic of the different organizations that have pooled resources together for this unique residency. “I’m able to present a certain balance that most artists probably can’t because they don’t have the lived experience.” 

For six to nine months, Hough will work on public art that will “explore the human toll of incarceration and highlight the importance of creating alternatives to a punitive and incarceration-driven justice system,” according to a press release from the DAO. The focus of his work will be to get people talking. 

One of the expected projects the artist wants to work on would be a series of videos interviewing prosecutors and victims of crime. Hough told Hyperallergic that he was looking to program workshops that will foster conversations between the DA’s 600 or so employees, survivors of crimes, and those currently serving time in the criminal justice system.

Artwork by James “Yaya” Hough

“There is no doubt any artists can come into this residency and create an amazing project or projects that will captivate minds and produce beautiful things and tell some truth,” said Hough. “But I think what they probably are unable to bring is a level of a really high level of passion and commitment to [these] issues and a really strong desire to create dialogue inside of the community, between the DA’s office, the citizenry, the affected communities and more specifically, victim advocate groups — particularly ones that are marginalized, formally convicted individuals and prosecutors.”

The project aligns with District Attorney Larry Krasner’s goal to look for new ways to improve the criminal justice system. Although Mural Arts has collaborated with other government agencies, this is the first time one of its artists will work so closely inside an institution.

“This is a project that I desperately wanted because I knew what I could bring to it. The opportunity as an artist is tremendous, but also the opportunity as a person who can impact society is also worth it,” said Hough. “It sends a message that we were trying to turn a corner as a society.”

Monica Castillo is a writer and critic based in New York City. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Village Voice, RogerEbert.com, Remezcla, the Guardian, Variety, NPR, and Boston...

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