Monday, Jan. 24, the CalArts community will welcome visual artist, James “Yaya” Hough and 2021 MacArthur Fellow, curator and art historian, Dr. Nicole Fleetwood, in dialogue through the Paul Brach Visiting Artist Lecture Series. Through their visual, curatorial, and art historical works, Fleetwood and Yaya Hough have both brought vital contributions to our contemporary art worlds, through their work and the change their work has advocated for against the systemic violences of mass incarceration and racial capitalism in the US.
Yaya Hough is featured alongside a number of artists in Fleetwood’s groundbreaking curatorial project, Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, with a book of the same title published by Harvard University Press. The exhibition opened at PS1/MoMA in 2020 and is now traveling between the Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, where it will open in April 2022. Monday’s conversation will offer a unique opportunity to hear them reflect together on their works and their work with one another.
Yaya Hough spent his formative years becoming an artist while incarcerated within the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, where despite his conditions, he found ways to develop his art practice and built a large body of work, which he has continued in the years since his release. Working primarily in painting and drawing, his works often consider the social relations among which they will circulate. These range from sensitive portraits made to share with others with whom he was imprisoned, to diagrammatic, surrealist drawings of the economies that feed upon the power, desire, racial politics and life-extraction that underlies modern carcerality, to a dialogical practice of public portrait and conversation-making that he undertook as the first Artist-in-Residence of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office and the the city’s long-serving arts organization, Mural Arts, with whom developed mural projects while incarcerated. These works have made him a leading artistic voice around questions of art and justice in the U.S. today.
The way in which Yaya Hough was able to become a critical contemporary artist despite his imprisonment is a circumstance shared by the majority of artists who Fleetwood has curated into and written about in Marking Time — living, working, learning and forming artistic and political community under conditions of punitive captivity, and working with what she calls “carceral aesthetics.” Defining carceral aesthetics as bearing the traces, materialities and reflections of carceral realities, Fleetwood’s work introduces key frameworks for understanding art produced under and around carceral conditions. By situating these artists’ practices in the context of their artistic communities, histories, pedagogies, shared criteria and context, she has made a way for artists whose work might otherwise have been regarded as folk or outsider art, but not taken seriously within the field of contemporary art and the longer reach of modernism.
As with Yaya Hough’s art making, in addition to the cultural importance of Fleetwood’s work is its political importance, as it pushes against this cultural segregation, which itself repeats the racializing logics that mass incarceration thrives upon and extends into the institutional life of our art worlds. While countering this underestimation and disavowal of artists and artworks, her work also repudiates the innocence attributed to our cultural institutions, from museums to art schools, asking instead that we reflect upon how our institutions are bound up in our society’s fundamental carcerality — whether by practicing the same exclusions, appropriations and hierarchies, or by situating mass incarceration as something outside of our concerns as artists, or outside of the very modernity that it has helped to produce. As she writes in her “Note on Method” in Marking Time, “I foreground the experiments, experiences, and conceptualization of incarcerated artists in order to present prison art as central to the contemporary art world and as a manifestation and critique of the carceral state.”
Together, Fleetwood and Yaya Hough’s conversation will offer the broader CalArts community a chance to reflect upon these experiments, experiences and conceptualizations, and the challenges they offer to conventional art world values, criteria, participation and organization, as they bring their practices rooted in care, justice, and an expansion of our fields and sense of what our practices can do.
This talk was organized within the Fall ‘21 class, Prisons & Systems & Structures, led by CalArts faculty, Ashley Hunt (Photo and Media), whose work is also included in the Marking Time exhibition and referenced in Fleetwood’s book. Presented as a part of the Paul Brach Visiting Artist Lecture Series and made possible by the hard work of the Photography and Media program’s coordinator, Mehregan Pezeshki, it is also supported by the Nick England Intercultural Arts Projects grant, which seeks to foster the mutual exchange of aesthetic, social, and political concerns through artistic interaction among diverse artists, the CalArts community and the wider constituencies of Southern California.
James "Yaya" Hough (b. 1974, Pittsburgh, PA) lives and works in Pittsburgh, PA. For over a decade, Hough has been heavily involved with Mural Arts Philadelphia. Since working with Mural Arts, Hough has created over 50 works that have been installed in Philadelphia, State Correctional Institution Graterford, and State Correctional Institution Phoenix. In 2019, as a part of a program supported by the Art for Justice Fund and Fair and Just Prosecution, Hough was selected to be the inaugural Artist-in-Residence at the Office of the District Attorney of Philadelphia. Currently, Hough’s work is included in Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, curated by Dr. Nicole R. Fleetwood, at the Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts, Birmingham, AL, which traveled from MoMA PS1, Queens, NY.