Former inmate James ‘Yaya’ Hough showcases an art exhibit in Center City, ushered in by Bernard Hopkins, to thank the people who helped shape who he is now.
Undisputed middleweight boxing champ Bernard Hopkins made a surprise appearance at the Philadelphia district attorney’s office Wednesday to say hi to an old friend he met in jail.
He and Michael “Smokey” Wilson – before a gaggle of press – regaled tales of prison fights averted, lessons learned on the inside, and how Wilson guided Hopkins on a path to the straight and narrow, when his will was pulling him the other way.
Hopkins, at 17, met Wilson at Graterford Prison and was sentenced to 18 years for nine felonies. Wilson was more than twice his age. There, behind bars, the two became fast friends after a knowing, Philly-style handshake.
On Wednesday, District Attorney Larry Krasner, partnering with the Fair and Just Prosecution project and the city’s Mural Arts program, premiered a new, 10-month art installation at the D.A.’s office. Former Philly inmate James “Yaya” Hough, along with Krasner, Mural Arts Executive Director Jane Golden, Wilson, Hopkins and others cut a yellow ribbon to open the exhibit outside the D.A.’s office titled, “Points of Connection.”
“I want people to see themselves reflected in the eyes of the portrait subjects,” Hough said during Wednesday morning’s press conference.
“I want them to form an empathetic bond amongst each other. Whether we know it or not, we are all justice impacted.”
“Points of Connection” is a series of portraits designed by Hough while he was behind bars at Graterford prison. It features portraits of people like Wilson, Dorothy Johnson-Speight, founder of Mothers in Charge, prosecutor Ebony Wortham of the city’s juvenile unit, Tahira Fortune, a victims’ advocate, the D.A. himself, formerly incarcerated inmates who have made better lives for themselves, and others.
These portraits will be on display during the artist-in-residence program at the D.A.’s office in an “effort to humanize the people who populate the criminal legal system by cultivating relationships and connections through his artmaking,” according to a press release.
Hough’s portraits will be displayed in several contexts that aim to reimagine themes of justice and the accessibility of the arts. Each is incorporated into a single, large-scale vinyl print installed on the windows of the D.A.’s office. More will be installed elsewhere throughout the city later.
“The program was designed to humanize people living and working within the systems in criminal justice by cultivating relationships and making connections,” said Golden.
“It is one of the high points of my life – and I [am] to say this personally and professionally – that I had the opportunity to connect with artists like James Hough. Working in Graterford literally changed the trajectory of Mural Arts.”
“These are people who have never walked away from the fact that they did something wrong when they were younger, but these are also people who I believe have proven a fundamental point that we should not lose: Which is that there are no monsters and there are no saints. The criminal justice system right now is built on the crack foundation of the notion that you’re either all good or you’re all bad… People change. Almost everybody is capable of positive change. If they are given the opportunity.”
Hopkins closed out the morning with these words:
“This is an inspiration and also a challenge. There are people out there that shouldn’t be characterized as monsters or angels… I went through boxing – a hard, taxing sport on your body. I know why I’m still representing myself respectfully, dignified, for my family and the City of Philadelphia. I know who I am and I know I was supposed to go through those adversities in my life to go ahead and save others.”
While incarcerated, James ‘Yaya’ Hough took art classes via the city’s Mural Arts’ Restorative Justice program. He contributed to more than 50 murals outside the walls of Graterford and his work has been featured in museum exhibits at MoMA and the African American Museum in Philadelphia.
After being sentenced to life at the age of 17 in 1992, the Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that life sentences for juvenile offenders were unconstitutional. He was resentenced and released in 2019.