THE HOUSE THAT HERMAN BUILT

by Jackie SumielHerman Wallace 
Published by Akademie Schloss Solitude on January 1st 1970 

For over thirty-eight years herman joshua wallace has been in solitary confinement in louisiana's state prison system. solitary confinement, or closed cell restriction [ccr] at the louisiana state penitentiary consists of a minimum of 23 hours a day in a six-foot-by-nine-foot cell. as a member of the black panther party, herman wallace has been isolated to the darkest places in the united state's largest penitentiary. specifically because of his political beliefs, he has been forced to endure the worst conditions of solitary confinement for nearly four decades.

In 2003 artist jackie sumell asked herman a very simple question: "what kind of house does a man who has lived in a 6' x9' box for over 30 years dream of?"

The answer to this question has manifested a remarkable project principled in social sculpture, community outreach, benevolence and the ultimate power of the imagination called the house that herman built.

this extraordinary collaboration has gained international recognition through its exhibition and corresponding book. this enormous project has been shown dozens of times in over 7 countries, garnishing accolades from the harshest critics. a documentary is being produced and directed by independent film maker angad bhalla. as herman & jackie transition from building a virtual home through an art exhibition to building herman's actual dream home in (his birth city) new orleans, the growing community of support has increased infinitely. ththb has formal alliances with various community groups, collectives, and committees. maison orion, a los angeles based design studio, is providing architectural support for this project to see that it is realized with faithfulness to herman’s vision with the absolute minimum of modifications. once the land is acquired, construction can begin.

the house that herman built is a testament to the human imagination, an illustration of kindness, an art project, and an introduction to history that highlights institutionalized racism in the united states. ultimately, herman's house is a monument to resilience, courage, creativity and magnanimity. herman wallace & jackie sumell have committed their lives to building it. please join us on this journey.

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While reading ‘Freedom is a Constant Struggle’ by Angela Davis, she mentioned another book titled ‘The House that Herman built’. Instantly, I was intrigued to find out more and ordered it. ‘The House that Herman built’ is about a member of the Black Panther Party, who was imprisoned in solitary confinement for 31 years because he refused to renounce his political views. Indeed, he is not the first or the last one to be imprisoned for that long. For example, Nael Al-Barghouthi has become the longest-serving Palestinian prisoner, who has been in prison for 36 years. Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years before release. Moazzam Begg was held in Guantanamo Bay’s solitary confinement for 600 days.

When I was a teenager, I remember watching a documentary about Lebanese political prisoners. It was excruciating to watch but there was one particular woman who went endured so much pain that when her parents passed away while she was in prison, she didn’t shed a tear for them and said, “What I am going through is worse than the death of my parents, how can I cry for them!”

I have always wondered how did these political prisoners and prisoners of conscience survive this immense pain in the darkness behind those bars and from where do they gain this myriad strength. How did they live and manage their lives and how, after all they have been through, can they still smile and able to maintain an optimistic view of life?

‘The House that Herman built’ explores the survival method through imagination and art. You would think, someone who stayed alone for years in the dark will not have any artistic and creative senses. Yet Herman proves the opposite.

Herman was approached by Jackie Sumell, Stanford University art student asking the question, what would be the dream house of a man who has been kept in 6’x10′ box, so small, that if he outstretched his arms he can touch both walls!

The book is a collection of letters and drawings exchanged between Herman and Jackie. Initially, Herman was doubtful and hesitant in trusting Jackie and did not believe in the effectiveness of attempting to imagine his dream house. It was difficult for Jackie to build a relationship of trust between them, but she believed in him and his ability to imagine. Jackie wanted Herman’s art to reach the outside world and use it as a mean to communicate the constant struggle and pain of political prisoners.

Herman imagined a massive house, with rooms made of glass to see the clear sky from every angle. He had a swimming pool with a black panther printed tiles, African themed bedroom and a meeting room with framed pictures of the key revolutionary figures. In his art, he was cautious at times and rebellious at others. Although, he had a wild imagination, he could not free himself from the idea of being chased and killed. He planned a secret tunnel under the swimming pool and made sure that the exterior was made of wood, so he can easily set it afire and escape to the tunnel in case of a serious attack.

I was fascinated by how considerate he was. He initially wanted bear skin rug in his African themed bedroom but eventually he changed his mind to not upset those who love animals!

Although the book was focusing of the human aspect and expressions through art that I thoroughly enjoyed, there was no psychological analysis of the chosen interior designs and the emergence of the ideas, it is up to the reader to figure that out.  Through reading this book, you realise that imagining spaces can be indeed an effective strategy of survival and this was illustrated through Herman’s expression and artistic details about his dream house. As we have become a visual nation, we are bombarded by many images and symbols that have lost deeper meanings. We no longer see, we visualise by dealing with machines, televisions, phones, posters, YouTube and Facebook videos. Our imagination is mechanised and restrictive and therefore we are unable to fantasise authentic and original views of ourselves and surroundings. Unlike Herman, whose body was trapped in a box but his imagination was free from the shackles of technological trappings. This book is a true revival of a human’s story through authentic meaningful images.

“True, I suffer but I rise above that suffering because I know it is through my suffering that the masses of people are so inspired to fight back” Herman Wallace.

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