by Gina McKlveen
On December 1, 2022, the Carnegie Museum of Art in partnership with the Carnegie Mellon School of Art hosted one of its many artist talks that is part of a series called, “Refractions: 58th Carnegie International Conversation Series.” Inside the Carnegie Museum of Art Theater, two revolutionary artists—James “Yaya” Hough and etta cetera—sat side-by-side in conversation with each other and the moderator, Dana Bishop-Root, who serves as the Museum’s Director of Education and Public Programs.
Yaya is a seasoned artist who has had a love for expressing himself through the arts since his childhood. He grew up in the Hill District of Pittsburgh and recalled some of the struggles he faced in his early years that were “not friendly to the development of an artist.” At seventeen, after being convicted of murder, Yaya was sentenced to prison and served a 23-year mandatory life sentence without parole.
While in the prison system, Yaya rediscovered his love of the arts. Initially, his motive for making art was as a tool to change the conditions of his own environment. However, along the way Yaya realized that art had a unique ability to bring people together to make ripple effects in the community. So Yaya treated his role as an artist in prison with great responsibility, focusing first and foremost on building relationships with people—an ethos he continues to bring into his work to this day, as evidenced by his most recent work for the Carnegie International, A Gift to the Hill District, which is featured not within the Museum walls, but in the Hill District community and created in collaboration with the neighbors who live there.
A Gift to the Hill District, is Yaya’s first public commission in his hometown, but he has been involved with Mural Arts Philadelphia for over a decade, served as the inaugural artist-in-residence at the Office of the District Attorney of Philadelphia, and created more than 50 works of art that have been installed at State Correctional Institutions across the United States.
Yaya crossed paths with etta cetera, artist and board of director of Let’s Get Free: The Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee, though an art exhibit hosted through BOOM concepts, a creative art space for marginalized voices in Pittsburgh. Yaya described one of the pieces he created for that exhibit as a “found object piece”—a collection of walnuts and a nail painted in white with an image and some text attached and etta recalled bringing a group of 17-year-old students to the exhibition, intentionally noting to these students that they were the same age as Yaya when he received his prison sentence. Like Yaya, etta’s view of the artist as a connector in the community serves as a path that leads to critical thinking, which can set people free.
For her own entry into the arts, etta also began at an early age when during her public-school education art became her favorite subject and all she wanted to do was be in the art classroom. She went on to work in Baltimore at the American Visionary Art Museum and discovered one of her foundational artistic inspirations, Beehive Design Collective, which introduced her to the paper mural art form that blended her creative expression with social advocacy efforts.
Now, etta says she sees every piece of art as a freedom prayer and her work seeks to show the humanity of incarcerated people. Specifically, etta mentioned the project “Let Grandma Go,” and described the story of an 80-something-year-old prisoner, Betty Heron, who knit a horse which etta used as an example to show the humanity of the elderly women still in prisoned. etta wants people to ‘see the thing’ that these prisoners create because prison has a way to isolating and invisibilizing people, especially women and trans prisoners who don’t have equal access to resources, including art materials, in prison as their male counterparts. Her collaborative work Across the Walls (2022), a 22-minute black and white video, details the first-person experiences of two women recently released from prison after serving over 40-year sentences, and five others who are still incarcerated. Her hope with this work is that people will see it and be ignited to do something to change their own community.
As a final parting for the evening, etta offered ways to get involved with Let’s Get Free: The Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee including Operation Break Bread—a visiting program that connects people in Pittsburgh with people who are incarnated at the two local women’s prisons, Write Time, a weekly virtual meeting space to write letters to people in prison, and Creative Resistance: Picture a Free World, an art show and fundraiser seeking submissions for visual art and poetry through February 1, 2023. More details on Let’s Get Free are available at: https://letsgetfree.info/.
The public can view A Gift to the Hill District at 2317 Center Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15219 and Across the Walls (2022) is on view at the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Heinz Architectural Center (Floor 2). “Refractions: James “Yaya” Hough & Let’s Get Free” will air on Artists in the World, a new WQED and Carnegie Museum of Art Podcast. The next “Refractions: 58th Carnegie International Conversation Series” artist talk will take place on December 15, 2022 from 6:30-7:30 PM at the Carnegie Museum of Art Theater.