Invisible Ink

James Hough talks to Nicole R. Fleetwood about drawing and desire in the carceral system

James “Yaya” Hough, Untitled, 2014, paper, ink, pencil, watercolor, 8 1/2 x 11".

AT THE AGE OF SEVENTEEN, James “Yaya” Hough was sentenced to life without parole in Pennsylvania, a state responsible for sentencing more Black youth to life than almost any other. Told that he would never be released from prison, he turned that death sentence into a rigorous reading and art practice, spending hours a day with his sketchbooks drawing, painting watercolors, and working on communal murals inside the facility. He describes his daily routine as taking on a spiritual character, a “discipline,” but not in any punitive sense. He was known and admired inside prison for his pen drawings and watercolors on the back of pink prison documents, carbon paper, and other carceral forms. He became a mentor to other incarcerated artists, including Russell Craig, who first told me about Hough in 2017. Hough told Craig “to be undeniable,” a phrase he and Craig repeat often.

Hough—whose first solo show, “Invisible Life” recently opened at New York’s JTT gallery, where it will run through June 5—was released from State Correctional Institution Phoenix in August 2019, almost twenty-seven years into his sentence, in large part due to a Supreme Court ruling that mandatory life without parole for juveniles is unconstitutional. Within weeks of his release, Hough became the inaugural artist in residence for the district attorney’s office of Philadelphia, working on several high-profile projects with Mural Arts Philadelphia, an established nonprofit known for collaborating with system-impacted people to transform public space. Last fall, he made his museum debut in MoMA PS1’s “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” a major survey I curated following the release of my book of the same title. Currently, he’s working on a project with the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh connected to the Fifty-Eighth Carnegie International in 2022, an experience that carries a personal significance for the artist, who participated in the Carnegie Museum’s youth-art initiative as a middle-schooler. “I was joking with [Carnegie International curator] Sohrab Mohebbi, telling him, ‘Man, I’m actually an alumnus of your guys’ Saturday children’s program.’ So to be in the Fifty-Eighth is like, full circle.”

Many of the works in “Invisible Life” were made between 2008 and 2016, when Hough experimented with one-line drawing to develop a symbolic language that explores desire, power relations, deprivation, and capitalist reproduction in the carceral state. “I was always reading on the subject matter and found a wide array of great books that really explore abolition and the carceral experience at very, very deep levels. But visually, the material was scant as far as the deeper understanding of what that experience really is from the inside out.”

James “Yaya” Hough, Untitled, 2008–2016,* paper, ink, pencil, 8 1/2 x 11".

The ballpoint drawings in “Invisible Life”—whose influences include the art of Keith Haring, R. Crumb, Surrealists, as well as works of radical history such as Danielle L. McGuire’s At the Dark End of the Street (2010)—are orgiastic, mechanized, frenetic, and grotesque. “There’s a lot of activity in my drawings,” he tells me. “The carceral environment is a constantly moving environment. Most people portray the carceral state as stationary, as a very slowed-down place, but in fact nothing could be further from the truth.”

In one untitled ink-and-pencil drawing, corrections officers (identifiable by their hats) attached by nooses lock their arms together to form a circle jerk. Human figures wear animal masks (mostly of wolves and pigs) as they penetrate, ingest, or bind one another. Black women prison staff appear larger than other figures, often as voluptuaries, their buttocks and breasts on full display as they devour and are devoured. Irony infuses much of the work, such as one picture in which a scantily clad female guard poses as a pinup on the weekly-menu calendar of the Department of Corrections, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. “There’s a lightning rod of desire that runs through the whole carceral system,” he says, “and that needed to be expressed visually.”

James “Yaya” Hough, Untitled, 2008–2016,* paper, ink, pencil, 8 1/4 x 11 1/4".

The bodies in these drawings are polymorphous, often faceless, and the sex acts reflect a queerness that courses through prison life, what he describes as the fluidity of gender roles structured by prisons. In one image, imprisoned people and staff alike are arranged in an assembly line, or chain gang, of Caligulan acts of ecstasy and horror. Penises pile up as a prison guard appears to perform blow jobs and castrations simultaneously. Over time, Hough made peace with the routine bodily invasions of prison life—the constant surveillance, the countless times he had been made to stand naked in front of guards. He was active in art communities in prison, but kept these drawings hidden until his release, in large part because guards were main characters in his series. “Art, culture, and music inside a prison are treated no differently than on American slave plantations of the past,” Hough says. “They’re things to be controlled. Any art that is critical, or any art that is deemed subversive, or too sexual, or art that poses any threat to the current system of order, is to be confiscated and forthwith either sent outside the institution or destroyed.”

This show also has Hough thinking through the context in which his work will be received and the implications of selling works that document his time behind bars. “They represent almost, like, artistic documents that prove the reality of that experience,” he says. “What is the artist’s responsibility to not commodify that work? The whole profit-making, artmaking industry raises serious conflicts for artists who have a strong social impulse, and many of us from the carceral background experience that tension.”

Hough’s “Invisible Life” is a fantastical imagining of the psychic, social, bodily, and erotic hold that prisons have not only on those held captive and those who work on behalf of them, but on society writ large. It is an expansive inquiry into the relationship between violence, eroticism, and reproduction at root in racial and extractive capitalism, of which carcerality is a foundational system. Hough reveals through these drawings a type of bare life produced by the system of captivity, warehousing, and punishment. “The prison experience, the carceral experience, without art, is just a nihilistic experience,” he says. “It’s a confrontation with meaninglessness, hopelessness, in the purest way.”