Oct 30

Prophesied: A Portrait of Criminal Justice

by: Norah Langweiler

When Russell Craig and James “Yaya” Hough met nearly a decade ago, they were both at Graterford Prison participating in a Mural Arts Philadelphia workshop designed to engage inmates in art-making. While Yaya had worked with Mural Arts for years and Russell was a new participant, both used the opportunity to develop their mural-making skill set. This was just the beginning of these two creatives finding their purpose as artists. 

When Russell was released over six years ago, he began to envision a project that would be an indictment of the prison-industrial complex through the lens of his friend and fellow artist, Yaya. The two brainstormed their mural the old-fashioned way: through letters. Sentenced to life in prison without parole, Yaya’s contributions would be limited to the suggestions he could communicate in his letters, while Russell translated his words into art.

Prophesied dedication, and Rendering Justice opening event the African American Museum in Philadelphia, 701 Arch Street, October 28, 2020. Photo by Steve Weinik.

In 2012, that plan took a sharp turn due to the work of nationally acclaimed civil rights attorney, Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson’s work centered around the unconstitutionality of sentencing justice-engaged youth to life without parole, and won a series of Supreme Court cases which ruled that mandatory sentences of life without parole for children aged 17 years and younger unconstitutional. That ruling was retroactively applied, allowing for the resentencing of thousands of people nationwide who were sentenced to life in prison as children. Yaya was one of those children. 

In 2019, after serving 27 years of his life sentence, Yaya was given the freedom he never expected, the opportunity to work and collaborate with his longtime friend in-person, and the honor of being named the Philadelphia District Attorney’s first-in-the-nation Artist-in-Residence.

Returned home and reunited, Russell and Yaya’s shared studio is exactly what you’d expect from an urban workspace. The room’s peeling white walls and floor-to-ceiling windows reflect a work in progress. On one side of the room are Russell’s materials – paint, brushes, rags, and paint stripper. On the other is a set of eyes – Yaya’s eyes – watching over the space and the city through the windows.

Russell Craig works on his portrait of James "Yaya" Hough at the Mural Arts studio at 915 Spring Garden Street. Photo by Steve Weinik.

The mural, titled Prophesied, is a portrait of Yaya. When you look closer, you find miniature, multimedia portraits of Yaya and other black men sprinkled throughout, representing the many iterations of the subject throughout his 27 years in prison. Further examination reveals the painting surface is a patchwork of dismembered leather bags, sourced from a former inmate and friend of Russell. The leather, tough and tanned, is a call to the oppression and brutality from law enforcement, and mass incarceration Black people face in the United States. Russell enjoys the play of different materials – not just the physical application of paint with brush, but also the narrative and meaning of those materials. 

A portion of these leather bags were crafted by an inmate, introduced through mutual friend and artist Jesse Krimes, from whom Russel purchased them. Unfortunately, the inmate was moved to another facility, putting him out of contact and out of reach for Russell to continue the arrangement. Moving inmates between facilities, regardless of how it will impact their relationships within and outside the prison, is just one example of how the criminal justice system has been instituted and refined as an effective alternative to the racist slave system the country was founded on. Holding countless parallels to the treatment of livestock bred for slaughter, tactics like overcrowding, poor quality of food, apathetic caretakers subdue and dehumanize prisoners, who are often farmed out as cheap labor and viewed as disposable by an industry built on the philosophy that poor black lives are disposable while wealthy white lives are indispensable.

 

  • Russell Craig works on his portrait of James "Yaya" Hough at the Mural Arts studio at 915 Spring Garden Street. Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Russell Craig works on his portrait of James "Yaya" Hough at the Mural Arts studio at 915 Spring Garden Street. Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Russell Craig works on his portrait of James "Yaya" Hough at the Mural Arts studio at 915 Spring Garden Street. Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Russell Craig works on his portrait of James "Yaya" Hough at the Mural Arts studio at 915 Spring Garden Street. Photo by Steve Weinik.

Russell wears a face mask as he works the paint onto and away from the leather, layering colors and textures to capture the depth of Yaya’s dark beard. Russell describes the process of push and pull, a technique that’s used with lots of different materials and offers a texture that can’t be achieved with a simple flat canvas. Though unintended, the hazardous fumes from the materials add another layer of meaning to an already multi-dimensional piece: calling attention to systems that have oppressed, brutalized, and imprisoned black people for centuries has been, historically and presently, a hazardous process – it seems fitting that the process of creating art that does the same would require protection.

Prophesied is currently on display on an exterior wall at the African American Museum of Philadelphia.

See More of Prophesied

Prophesied © 2020 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Russell Craig, the African American Museum in Philadelphia, 701 Arch Street. Photo by Steve Weinik.

Last updated: Oct 30, 2020

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