“Soul Shadows: Urban Warrior Myths”
By Joe Lewis
Artspace, March/April 1993
The trouble with a lot of politically motivated art is a failure of nerve. Artists who produce work that they know is not favored by our established regime are not necessarily taking risks since they can forecast the results. Truly taking a risk means not knowing what’s going to happen in the end. It’s about placing yourself in extremes and working with no predetermined agenda. Or, it involves combining everyone’s dependence on traditional actions and associations with unknown quantities-the sort of thing that happens with cultural mingling. It means being willing to explore the numerous twists and turns that present themselves because of your actions. This type of journey is courageous.
Few artists accept this challenge. Especially in the public arena. Those who do often meet with skepticism from many of their peers, professional colleagues and institutional representatives (all of whom also sit on public commission panels). And who is responsible when the communities are not prepared to deal with this kind of art practice either? Most of the public art we are getting is well-researched, meticulously designed and beautiful, but bland. It offers little more than ornamental, space-transition works. So it is very unusual to come across any public art that challenges everyone involved – the artist, the community, participating administrations or institutions, and the general audience. And it is particularly exciting when you get an artist, client group, and community to agree to cross the line and make new footprints.
Dawn Dedeaux’s multi-media installation, “Soul Shadows: Urban Warrior Myths,” is a pioneering work of this kind. It grew out of a risk-taking public project, and the results open up new avenues of thought about pressing social issues.
Instead of suggesting an exterior mural or some form of sculptural ornamentation for an addition to the Orleans Parish Prison in New Orleans, Dedeaux proposed to use the “Percent for Art” money to develop and implement a group of programs to take into the prison for the inmates. The decision to create an interactive project with this group of people was due in part to her own efforts to come to an understanding of feelings that emerged after having been personally touched by urban violence. Although she did not begin this project with the resultant installation in mind, “Soul Shadows: Urban Warrior Myths” eventually evolved as a way to present the materials generated from her interactions with this removed community.
Dedeaux worked for several years with incarcerated juveniles, adults, and members of youth gangs. Without didactic comment, she encouraged these people to explore their experiences through the media of video and writing. The results are direct, intimate, and offer a powerful look at “the Life” – from its root cause antecedents through its (all too tragic consequences.” In the installation, all of this is deeply etched into our collective psyche by the vehicles of its revelation – the inmates’ autobiographical narrative and self-examination.
Other themes developed in the installation are: coming of age, free will vs. destiny, the conflict between mythology and reason, judgment and reckoning, redemption and death. However, the most provocative and reoccurring issue addressed here is the notion of change. No matter how far down an indi vidual may have gone, the realization that it is possible to change, to rise up and overcome, is perhaps the most miraculous of all transformative experiences. But Dedeaux also notes that, as a society, we all have to share in the risks of change. If we ask our youth to give up their existing venues of empowerment, we must at the same time provide them with viable alternatives. She challenges us to accept this part of the burden. Only through trust and cooperative partnership can true change come about.
The first installation of “Soul Shadows: Urban Warrior Myths” was sponsored by The Contemporary, a Maryland-based, site-specific museum without a defined exhibition space of its own. The installation was mounted as a “work in progress” on the second floor of an abandoned car dealership in mid-town Baltimore. Dedeaux’s selection of this space recontextualized its inherited history. The mechanics’ paradise, the garage space where people once brought their machines to be rewired and tuned-up, was to be filled with the purgatorial (even infernal) sights, sounds and texts of people thought of as broken, dysfunctional, and discarded by society.
Dedeaux’s visual manipulations are littered with double-entendre. The basic structural element of the installation is a metaphorical “house”-constructed with the ramshackle, expedient materials common to low-cost housing units. In the center is a 65-foot hall way with ten small rooms for video viewing off this main corridor. This modular design, of course, is not only that of public housing, but also that of surveillance-based prison accommodations. A macabre symbiotic relationship is suggested; perhaps a preconditioning. In fact, Dedeaux’s conceptual use of the “house” is based on her awareness that, in New Orleans (as in most urban centers), over one percent of the total population lives in JAIL. If today’s rate of incarceration continues, more that 10% of the U.S. population will be behind bars by the year 2010. Dedeaux points out that JAIL is no longer an isolated place but is rapidly moving toward the center of our society.
That is reinforced by her use of common home security gates throughout the installation. You enter the main corridor and every room of “Soul Shadows” through forged wrought iron gates that have the appearance of having been pried open. Implying more than their obvious connection to prison experience or escape, these gates remind us of a different kind of insecurity—one of self-containment and the fear of not being able to keep something out – which makes us turn our homes into prisons. The placement of surveillance cameras and video monitors at strategic positions within the installation further formalizes the issue of security. Whereas the gates act as a cerebral antidote for fear of violation, the addition of video monitoring and its simulcast display physically incorporates the viewer into the piece. It is no longer possible to be a voyeur. Now, flattened out and broadcast live, you are electronically caged and being judged, like everyone else.
Once through the main gates (Dedeaux acknowledges a debt to Rodin’s Gates of Hell), you enter the long “Hall of Judgement.” A rocking environmental soundtrack – made of multiple overlays of a gospel choir mixed with rap music composed by the juvenile offenders, which in turn blends with voices from the continuous video presentations in the other ten rooms of the house – plays us like a drum speaking in tongues. The hallway has been perspectively altered, narrowing dramatically as you look down it, and it has been lit as if you were looking into an oven with the bot tom flame broiler on. The edges where the floor meets the walls are scarlet hot, and a fluorescent seepage creates an illusion of floatation. You think twice about stopping but are engaged by distorted silhouette images of others who may have lingered too long. Seized, frozen in time, and stacked two-up as if they were in holding cells, these “soul shadows” are 4-by-5-foot enlargements of color Xeroxes made from still frames that Dedeaux transferred from a rap video titled “I’ve Got Soul,” which was produced by the juvenile inmates. These Dantesque images line the hall, not passing judgment so much as seeking a way out, their vaporlike movements broken only occasionally by the surveillance monitors.
At the far end of this gauntlet is an oval room referred to as the antechamber. Dedeaux has purposely structured this area after traditional religious architecture and ancient monumental burial chambers. This is the “Tomb of the Urban Warrior,” and its association with spiritual and historical monuments is intended as a reference to the extreme societal conditions that offer up death games as a heroic option to today’s youth. Metallic gold is used extensively in the imagery and architecture of the antechamber. Dedeaux points out that the 20th-century urban youth’s hunger for gold – whether in the form of rings, chains, medallions, earrings or even teeth – is to be seen within a direct historical continuum that stretches from Tutankhamen’s tomb to today’s corporate Rolex watches. It is part of a search for (symbols of) empowerment, a desire shared by people throughout history. In our inner cities, where a non-inclusive society has pro vided few viable options, empowerment and self-respect are increasingly sought through a mythological lifestyle of crime and violence.
A life-size gilded photograph of Wayne Hardy, a former gang leader, protects the entrance to the antechamber. He assumes the posture of the Chinese god of fate and chaos, Pan-Ku. Although Pan-Ku traditionally holds a shield inscribed with the yin-yang, Dedeaux replaces chat symbol with a shooting target. Hardy as the shield-bearing Urban Warrior is also the target of a violent wave of self-genocide in the inner cities. Dedeaux has been moved by the statistics on the “vanishing black adolescent male”: 87% of last year’s murders were committed by black males, 21 years or younger; 85% of those murdered were black males, 21 years or younger. In recent years, the prison population of black youths has tripled.
She puts a spin on all of this by placing the target-holding Hardy in the position of a Grand Inquisitor. His image is in constant view from the Hall of Judgement. It is Hardy who judges you as you walk toward the Tomb of the Urban Warrior. The tomb depicts his mythological transformation from gang leader/war god into “selected spiritual figures”-Jesus Christ, John Wayne, Malcolm X – in a series of enlarged, gilded photographs. The direction this imagery is mov ing is not toward glorification, but humanization. It speaks to the prevailing notion that these young men are write-offs.
It is through the evolving portraits of Wayne Hardy that Dedeaux reveals her true belief that within each of us there is the potential for transformation. Dedeaux had met Hardy during the recess of a trial of four black youths accused of killing a white man during an attempted robbery. The victim also happened to be a millionaire, and the trial took on additional importance because the State was considering giving these kids the death penalty. Hardy, who had just been acquitted of a capital crime, was with the family of one of the defendants and could easily have been implicated. He told Dedeaux he had a moment of clarity and came to a realization of how the system was using him, and others like him, to oppress their communities. Crime, drugs, and violence were ·tearing his people apart, and he wanted out.
Unfortunately, this is a lot easier said than done. At the time, he was being hunted both by rival gangs and the police. Dedeaux told him about her work with the juvenile group. She asked him if he would repeat what he said in a video interview that she would show to the others. Hardy was one of the most notorious gang leaders in New Orleans. When Dedeaux showed the tape in the juvenile facility, she grabbed everyone’s attention. From that moment on, a lot of things changed in that group, and the kids really began to open up and let Dedeaux in. They also made a response tape that was viewed by the Hardy Boys (Wayne and his brother Paul), creating an electronic dialogue.
These taped interviews are featured as “The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew” in one of the ten video rooms. During their interview, the Hardy Boys discuss “the Life,” how aggression is used to create status, and the use of violence as a form of political protest, paralleling Black Panther rhetoric of the 1960s. However, the conclusion of their message was a call for an end to the self-genocide and violence. They asked others to join them in working toward peace and community development.
In another room, a tape called “Urban Warrior Scrapbook” shows Wayne Hardy thumbing through his scrapbook accompanied by his own commentary. Many of the photos are of young men who have been killed by gang violence. “Drive By Shooting,” another video, was made during a ride with gang members through their territory. In this case, a camera has been substituted for the gun. The tape shows us the New Orleans “Hood” and innocent bystanders who, under different circumstances, could be targets for deadly force. This tape is intercut with another documentary that captures the emotional chaos within a neighborhood shortly after a real drive-by-incident. Another tape, “Family Tradition,” looks at a family with most of its members in detention. There is a taped exchange between the mother and son, who are in different parts of the same prison facility. The mother’s video, in which she expresses regret for her own drug addiction and for allowing her sons to sell drugs, is shown to her son. At first, the boy denies that it is his mother speaking to him on video, but he soon breaks down and reveals his own anguish, and ultimately his love and hope.
One of the things that “Soul Shadows: Urban Warrior Myths” shows in great detail is how much everybody yearns for the same things out of life. The opportunity to achieve individual identity and ascend to one’s own mental, physical and spiritual potential, and the right to a safe haven for oneself and one’s family. There is no way to evaluate the effect this project has had on the participants, or the effect it will have on those who view it. George Bernard Shaw once remarked that he who confuses political liberty with freedom and political equality with similarity has never thought for five minutes about either. Dedeaux has provided us with a chance to learn and to experience and to give these issues more than five minutes of our time. Ignorance of these issues is not necessarily bliss, while self-knowledge is definitely a key to ascension. We can all change. We must.
© 2016 Joe Lewis Art
WORD TO THE WORLD
On these two pages are excerpts from Dawn Dedeaux’s WORD TO THE WORLD, a book containing letters written by juvenile offenders in the Orleans Parish Prison Art Program. WORD TO THE WORLD is also included in a larger collective work, A Book Of Judgements, which contains poems, paintings, photographs and stories by both juvenile and adult inmates. The latter was produced by Dawn Dedeaux and funded by the New Orleans Percent for Arc Program. WORD TO THE WORLD has been reprinted and circulated under the auspices of Sheriff Charles C. Fori, Jr., and the Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff’s Office in hopes of creating a greater awareness of the problem of juvenile crime.
MY GENERATION HAS FALLEN
INTO A MIST OF DARKNESS…
My word to the WORLD consist as a word to the wise. Before i start telling you how i feel i would like to place my enitials so that my family could know i wrote this, and also because we can’t put our name’s, and my initials are M.A.M.
My life is just as one of a tipical young black male. because i have been through a lot of things that a lot of people have gone through, and maybe a lot more. I feel our new generation shouldn’t follow in my generation’s foot step, but that of an older generation, because I feel my generation has fallen into a mist of darkness, because we’re killing one another and just fallen ever so fast on to a time of evil and i need everyone to realize that the only way is through god. All of these wrong things won’t lead us but to a short life or a long time in prison. i really hope who ever read this try to pick up a few tips to help you live a more comfortable life be cause crimes pay for a little while but sooner or later you find out the hard way, because i had to find out the hard way, and i don’t want anyone to go through all the things i’ve been through. This is the way i see the world running today.
I really hate the fact that i had lost my freedom, then again i a little happy because it’s brought me to realize what i want to do in life, and it helps me in school and to build up a lot of mental skills to better me with knowledge. Right now i’m just a 16 year old teenager who made a mistake in life and i don’t want any one to make the same mistake i did, but i know that some of you have been going through alot of problems with someone you love are a member of your family as well as a friend, and you think getting put in Jail will be a way of getting back at them, but it isn’t because i know i’ve went through it, i know so one is probaly saying how can a 16 year old kid go through these things but they don’t realize i’m not the only one. Believe me i know how it feel to drive a stolen car, carry guns as well as selling drugs, but neither one of them is worth your freedom, because now i’m suffering, from missing my Family and the people i love. most of all i hate that i won’t be able to see my child who is due in October until he or she is two to four months old. i hope every one who reads this pick up a few tip to better your life.
6 FEET UNDER IN BODY BAG
TURNED ON THEIR BACKS…..
My words to the world is coming out of my mind,
its something like the cloths you wear, full of
but the point I’m trying to get across and explain,
is that black and white brothers are going insane,
its danger out there behind your house doors,
killing up each other until we can take no more;
thats how it is deep down inside.
that hard, hurting feeling you could never survive;
in order not to get lose in all this rapture,
find and seek God, you will get captured;
it takes a lifetime to survive on this earth,
without getting killed or incarsarated from
your date of birth;
people have to realize that their life can go
just like that.
6 feet under in a body bag turned on their backs;
Your eyes is stitched without seeing light,
you’re trapped with no where to go each and every
Your mind is gone, captured
Your brain sold.
All this stuff happens when you’re down
in Hell’s Hole.
Anyway yall be cool and Stop the
Violence and Free my People
“Go with Da Flo”
…CAN’T LIVE THE LIFE AN
ORDINARY PERSON LIVE SO THEY
JUST DO ANYTHING TO GET
ARRESTED OR EVEN COMMITT
The Dope game Takes alot of heart. Start off with
Dimes and Twentys End up rolling Kees. That’s
how it is but some Day all the fun stop.- STOP.
You end up Dead or Doing time in prison. Money
Making huslers and Big time Dopemans is almost
the same thing But Both Life is on the Edge of a
mountain. Watching your back twenty four hours
and stay straped Every where they go. They can’t
Live the life an Ordinary person Live so they Just
Do Anything to get Arrested or Even committ
Suicide. Living Large as a Youngster. Younster
get Excited over Money cause as they say more
money more power And to be in the Dope game
You need Power. Without that you can’t be known.
And the more people know you the more respect
you get. Jealousy. Jealousy is the thing 95
precent of Drug Dealer Die Over. Making More
Money than the Otherman can cause Jealousy and
can cause Death.
$365.00…THAT’S NOT ENOUGH TO
PAY THE BILL AND TAKE CARE OF
Well I Believe I don’t soppose to be in jail.
Because, I’ve gotten put out my house and I’d like to
find a way to keep my self up. I think if they would
Bring the working age to 14 yrs. old hardly any
one will sell drugs. My mom don’t get food
stamps, all she gets is a $365.00 check and thats
not enough to pay the bills and take care of 3 children.
People don’t care and the judges don’t understand
some people don’t have a choice . I’ve always
tried to get a job and a work permit. But they never
gave it to me. so this (crime) was the next thing I
have seen that was next. But I am very smart in
school (and) I feel I should get another chance. I
should get probation or community service. all I
wish is that I go home soon.
YOUR LETHAL WEAPON
IS YOUR MIND
To all you people in society stop the Violence
because our World is self destructing we are
killing up one another over a drug substance,
Jelousy, and power. But that’s not the way of the
World if you keep doing that your ife is going to
end are else come to jail but jail is a temporary
thing (unless you have life) when it’s time to face
that outside place again and you go back into that
game it’s going to end you’ll be dead staying in
the game. Jail is just a protection for you I been down
twice first time I done 2 years for wanting to
get paid I went to jail at the age of 13 and got out
when I was 16 now I’m back in jail for wanting to
get paid again now I’m doing 18 months.
As you can see crime isn’t worth it the fast money
is good but you always have to watch your back.
I almost had life in jail for Arm Robbery left but
they didn’t have enough evidence Every day I was
scared I had to carry a 357 on me every day
because I was robbing. But to make a long (story
short) to all people stay out the game your Lethal
Weapon is Your Mind use it before it’s too late.
“Soul Shadows: Urban Warrior Myths,”
a multi-media installation by Dawn Dedeaux
Contemporary Arts Center, 900 Camp Street, New Orleans,
January 30 – February 28, 1993
Los Angeles Photography Center, 412 S. Parkview Street, Sponsored by the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs,
March 23 – May 2. 1993.
“Soul Shadows” was also be presented at “Montage 93: International Festival of the Image” in Rochester, New York,
July 11 – August 7, l993