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Prison reform, community are the focus of local contributions to the 58th Carnegie International

The Carnegie International is Pittsburgh’s biggest art show, its longest-running, and, in fact, the oldest such show in North America. The 58th edition, which opens Sept. 24, is titled “Is it morning for you yet?” It features 140 artists from 40 countries and five continents, and will draw press attention from as far afield as those other art capitals, New York and London, for its mix of archival and newly commissioned works.

And among the new pieces in the Carnegie Museum of Art show are two with deep ties to Pittsburgh itself.

One is “Across the Walls,” a 20-minute documentary by Pittsburgh-based filmmaker Njaimeh Njie for the group Let’s Get Free: The Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee. It’s built around interviews with seven women who were sentenced to life without parole in Pennsylvania prisons. One of them is Avis Lee, who in 1980, at age 19, was convicted of second-degree murder for her role as a lookout in an armed robbery in Oakland, when her brother shot and killed a man.

Njaimeh Njie
Nairobi Jones
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"Across the Walls" filmmaker Njaimeh Njie

Lee served more than 40 years in jail before her sentence was commuted. She was released in 2021, at age 60.

Lee calls her commutation — which she applied for six times — “a miracle.” She laments that so many remain behind bars, victims of what reform advocates call “death by incarceration.”

“Those sentences are created for you to die in prison,” said Lee. “You are to leave in a body bag. And many have. And it’s a shame.”

Lee cofounded Let’s Get Free while in prison, working with local activist Etta Cetera. In “Across the Walls,” Lee is interviewed seated alongside Paulette Carrington, a Philadelphia woman who also served 40 years before commutation. Carrington explains why she still works for those still inside: “I laughed with them, I cried with them, I prayed with them. You know what I’m saying. I know they’re not really the person that they label them to be.”

The other five women, who are still in prison, are featured in remote, voice-only interviews. Njie’s film blends the interviews with archival footage to evoke their lives both before prison and inside.

“I think ultimately the film is about the endurance of the human spirit in the face of this unjust system and about the sisterhood that has evolved between these women in order to get through their lives and really kind of make something positive of their lives,” said Njie.

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Carnegie Museum of Art
Sohrab Mohebbi, curator of the 58th Carnegie International, visits the opening event for "A Gift to the Hill District."

In prison, Lee studied subjects from upholstery to braille. She earned an associate’s degree in accounting and small-business management, and currently works for UPMC as a peer navigator for pregnant or postpartum women with drug problems. While she has often expressed remorse for her crime, she said there’s no reason to keep aging prisoners serving life locked up.

“There are people in these prisons on walkers, in wheelchairs, with canes,” she said. “They are certainly not a threat to society.”

Let’s Get Free’s Etta Cetera said about 200 women and trans people are currently serving life sentences in Pennsylvania. “It is my hope that the film will continue to shine a light on this community that is part of our community that is being so separated,” she said.

“Across the Walls” will screen in the museum’s Heinz Architectural Center for the duration of the International. Meanwhile, the other exhibition offering from a local artist doesn’t live inside four walls at all, but rather on a single, outdoor one.

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Like “Across The Walls,” the mural “A Gift for the Hill District” was commissioned by the International’s curator, Sohrab Mohebbi. It’s a colorful, two-story mural on Centre Avenue, with figures illustrating the words “faith,” “art,” “family” and “freedom,” and a quote from Hill native August Wilson: “Have a belief in yourself that is bigger than anyone’s disbelief.”

In the case of “Across the Walls,” when Mohebbi refers to “the emancipatory possibilities of art,” he’s speaking literally about the hope for carceral reform. With “Gift,” he’s talking, a bit more metaphorically, about inspiring a community. But the story of lead artist James “Yaya” Hough, too, runs through state prison.

James "Yaya" Hough
Carnegie Museum of Art
James "Yaya" Hough poses with "A Gift to the Hill District."

Hough grew up in the Hill. In 1993, when he was 17, he shot and killed a man in the street. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Hough was released in 2019, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the practice of sentencing juveniles to life without parole.

In prison, he said, he took up reading and art; the latter was a return to a childhood interest, as he’d been enrolled in Saturday art classes at, of all places, the Carnegie Museum of Pittsburgh.

“In that process of incarceration, I found the light of education,” he said. “I rediscovered my own talents and abilities, and was able on many deeper levels to find my own humanity.”

After his release, Hough was awarded the first-ever artist residency at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office. He painted portraits of lawyers, judges, victims’ rights advocates and formerly incarcerated people.

Edgier work — some made while he was in prison — explored the trauma of life behind bars, and was exhibited in “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” a group show at MoMA PS1, in New York City.

That work helped persuade Mohebbi to invite Hough to participate in the International, in 2020. Hough proposed a mural in the Hill. “Immediately, I just said, ‘Let’s do it,’” said Mohebbi. “It was the first confirmed commission for the Carnegie International.”

But Hough, 47, didn’t want to represent only his own artistic voice. Instead, to create a concept for the mural, he held a series of workshops at the Hill’s Nafasi Art Space. A few dozen people participated, from small children to seniors, he said. “Those engagements are precious,” Hough said. “They’re very important and those engagements lead to future development in all sectors of life.”

The figures on the mural are mostly from Hough’s imagination, but they do include one recognizable landmark, St. Benedict the Moor church. The young person whose face defines the mural’s righthand border was included because of the group process, Hough said. Participants “wanted to see a young person prominently featured in the mural, dignified, having that type of stature.” (The mural adorns the side of a row house a half-block from the Pittsburgh Weil PreK-5 school.)

Even the brushwork was a group effort. In the “paint parties,” as Hough called them, workshoppers applied the acrylic paint to the 5-feet-by-5-feet textile panels, filling in the main elements. Installation and touchup was done onsite with help from BOOM Concepts.

Workshop participants included Talisha Agie, a professional hair-braider and life-long Hill resident. “I just feel so connected to it, because I’m like, I know I helped with that ‘g’! I know I helped with the ‘a’ and the ‘n,’” she said.

She especially likes that it was made with neighbors. “It’s doing exactly what it’s supposed to do, which is bringing people together,” she said.

The site is just blocks from where Hough grew up, and blocks from where he now lives.

“To come back and be able to do a program like this at the highest level of what the Carnegie puts out, as far as the International, it’s a dream for me,” he said. “Personally, as an artist, it’s a dream for me. As a member of this community, it’s extra special.”

The Carnegie International opens Sat., Sept. 24. The opening weekend includes several unique artworks and events. For more information, see here.

The International runs through March.

Corrected: September 23, 2022 at 2:16 PM EDT
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of International curator Sohrab Mohebbi's name.
Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: bodriscoll@wesa.fm