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NYC Unveils Stained

Aug 14, 2023

Three stained-glass medallions that tell an allegorical story of justice in America, made by a formerly incarcerated artist, will be formally unveiled at Esplanade Plaza in Battery Park City this weekend.

Crafted by James "Yaya" Hough, who served 27 years in prison upon being handed a life sentence as a minor, the triptych of five-foot circular pieces integrates specific references to the United States's history of injustice through imagery of chains and hooded Klansmen, and more universal iconography of freedom and justice rendered in an Art Deco style. For the next year, they will be on view at the curved granite wall overlooking the plaza and facing the Hudson River.

Entitled "Justice Reflected," the three medallions — fashioned from glass, mirror, and steel — represent a new medium for Hough, whose previous work consists mostly of murals, collages, and drawings.

"I’m excited about this commission because it opens the public space up to a new voice that people don't typically hear from particularly in a positive way," Hough told Hyperallergic. "This voice is trying to speak about justice as it relates to how we live in this country, how we bring equity and fairness to this country, how we do that through looking at aspects of our past, and how we realize something better through contemplation of that — in this case through art."

The medallions have a loose narrative that can be read from left to right. The leftmost panel depicts an idealized human figurine caged in a fetal position with his hands pushing outwards in an attempt to break out of confinement. Braided rows of smaller figurines gesture at the collective nature of oppression, and a border populated with abstract faces draws attention to individual suffering. Hough says this medallion symbolizes "the erasure and suppression of culture."

In the central medallion, the Egyptian goddess Ma’at, according to Hough, "reaches towards the sky, light, knowledge, and hope — those things which represent the higher self of all human beings." Meanwhile, with a second set of arms, she balances two objects: the heart of the individual, which represents their deeds, and a feather, which represents "the lightest material thing." Her third set of arms rests by her side, and suggests spiritual inwardness. On the outside border are Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous words: "The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice."

The final medallion shows an arm outstretched toward a dove while three snakes threaten the attainment of peace. The red-colored snake, Hough says, "reflects the nation at its lowest points." Tall, dagger-like objects which double as abstract emblems of the Ku Klux Klan menace the frame. Hough explains that they portray "the impulse towards right-wing fascism, state power and control, and racial terrorism."

Released in 2019 after the Supreme Court decided in 2012 that life sentences for minors were unconstitutional, Hough continued to develop his art practice while incarcerated. During that time, he taught other incarcerees portraiture techniques and other art-making skills he had honed. Hough's work was featured in Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration — curator and critic Nicole Fleetwood's seminal work published in 2020 on the abundance of creative work that flourishes within the confines of American prisons — as well as the accompanying show at MoMA PS1 that followed.

On Saturday, November 12 at 3pm, Hough and Fleetwood will host a public conversation at Esplanade Plaza, followed by a performance of "Requiem for Fred Hampton" by composer and musician Craig Harris and his ensemble. On Sunday, November 13 at 2pm, Hough will lead a public art talk and tour.

For Hough, sharing the work with the public also allows him to review his own shifting relationship with issues of justice.

"It's an opportunity for me to investigate how my concept of justice has evolved over my life, and how it's been transformed by spirituality, religion, politics, and culture," he said. "It's almost like I’m standing before the work and looking inward, rather than someone standing in front of the work and looking outward at it."

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University. More by Jasmine Liu