Art and justice are at the center of a unique activation in South Central LA aimed at exposing vulnerable communities to the intersection of creative expression and humanizing the incarcerated.
TRAPS HEALS, founded by CEO and cultural architect Damon Turner, and co-chaired by activist, artist, organizer, educator, and founder of both Black Lives Matter and Yes on R Patrisse Cullors, is holding the first-ever public activation in South Central LA, PROXIMITY.
This activation will focus on building a connection with local organizations to help bring exposure to art programming, equity and ownership within the community by holding music events, sustainability workshops, and more, from January 17 through January 26.
Turner told BET the biggest takeaway from this activation that he finds valuable “is having a community that is on the verge of being displaced and giving them the opportunity to dream, to imagine something bigger and different, and to see themselves in art while they still live here.”
He explained that the location of the activation in South Central’s The Jungle, is a historically Black community, and while in recent history it has been known for gang violence, it hasn’t always been that way.
“Historically speaking it has been an area where the Black who were well-off would live and there was a lot of trees, and really, really beautiful foliage, which is why they called it The Jungle,” Turner told BET. “It was never really meant to identify the savage or the animal.”
Through the PROXIMITY activation, Turner wanted to create something where “a little Black boy or a little Brown girl can come to a space and see this massive structure built across the street from the Magic Johnson Theater, something that has never been done before and see themselves, ask questions, and be inspired to create a new world for themselves moving forward.”
The activation includes several parts, including a greenhouse and a one-of-a-kind phone booth installation with stories from incarcerated people, which is directly in connection with the film Just Mercy, based on Bryan Stevenson’s book by the same name.
“One of the ways we’re in proximation with folks who are incarcerated, one of the main ways, and, I think, the most exploited ways that we’re in conversation with folks who are in prison is through phones, whether I’m paying outrageous amounts of money to talk to my loved ones, or I visit them inside of a prison and I have to talk to them through glass and I still need to pick up a phone,” Turner explained.
“With the help of Initiate Justice, we were able to identify some folks who, one of which is on death row, another person is serving life without parole, and I think the other two folks are serving multiple decade sentences plus life,” Turner continued.
“They’re from different backgrounds, Trans, Black, Brown, etc. and we wanted to repurpose the phone booth,” Turner said.
When people visit the phone booth there are three parts: “Press 1 and you hear the story of the person who is incarcerated. By pressing 2, you hear the stories of family members who support these folks and love these folks. You press 3 and get information on how you can be in community them directly.”
Turner added, “The phone is the anchor piece of the activation because the idea is not to judge them on what they did or even have an opinion of why they’re in prison, but really just to remind us that they’re still human beings.”
The activation is part of a broader campaign strategy to shift public opinion on incarcerated individuals and is intentionally located in South LA based on the neighborhood’s history and legacy as a cultural center for Black Los Angeles and as a community impacted by mass incarceration.
It's why artist Damon Davis’ “Darker Gods” exhibition, which is a pantheon of Black deities, is a featured piece, specifically “Blake: God of the Ghetto Children.”
A 10-foot statue of Blake will lead a procession through South Central LA after the installation from the PROXIMITY Greenhouse exhibition to the brand new Inglewood art gallery Crenshaw Dairy Mart.
“He’s the God of the ghetto children and he’s the God of the garden,” Turner explained.
Davis’ work is also included in the phone booth installation through three-dimensional portraits that people can see as they hear the stories of the incarcerated.
Pieces by photographer Bobby Rogers will also be featured, “one of which is a portrait of Yusef Salaam, one of the Central Park Five. This is an opportunity to re-engage with Yusef’s humanity,” Turner said.
Additionally, the activation brings free services to the community that they may not otherwise be exposed to or have access to, like yoga and Reiki, a healing energy therapy.
“Black folk don’t know about Reiki like that,” Turner said. “Black folks are just kind of getting comfortable with therapy.”
Over the course of his work creating TRAP HEALS, which launched in Oct. 2018 at Afro Punk in Atlanta, Turner wanted to find innovative ways of investing in vulnerable communities. Bringing these free services is just one way.
“I want to create a space where folks can come and ask a question and that’s a piece that we always want to have in any of the activations that we produce,” he said. “A free service for people to just come and explore until it becomes more commonplace.”
Overall, Turner said, his work is based on inspiring future generations of Black and Brown children.
“I’m the most inspired by my children,” he said of his two children, Damariah, 15, and 3-year-old Shine.
“We create these spaces so that the generation that’s coming behind us see the tools and see the resource in creativity,” Turner continued. “My daughter is an amazing artist and I often wonder if she can make it as an artist, survive as an artist, and I think this is our opportunity to show Black and Brown kids they can be artists, be creatives, and explore the world in that way.”
Photo: Giovanni Solis