In 2020, multimedia artist Abdul-Shaheed Aaron collaborated with the late artist Adreia Hawkins to create "Phoenix: Exhaled," a new mural inspired by Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," on the Arts Council's building, 924 N. Pennsylvania St. The Arts Council talked to him about his creative influences, his collaboration with Adreia, who died last August at age 41, and what he's looking forward to in 2021.

Arts Council of Indianapolis: What is the first thing you remember creating, before you even realized you were an artist?

Abdul Shaheed-Aaron: I was either 5 or 6 and my mother used to take us to a park. They used to do art outside in the park: this guy used to have a machine that you would drop paint into as it spiraled and it would create all these fantastic images of paints. I would try to create with it, by how I would place my paint, based on how my little mind thought it would go once the spiraling began. I was so proud of those pieces.

ACI: Who or what are your top three creative influences?

ASA: This is such a powerful question to answer in just three influences. I definitely have to include Gordon Parks. Not only was he an amazing documentary photojournalist, but he was also a film director, writer, and musician. His talents came together to make an image speak. Derrel Todd—he photographed Prince, Janelle Monae, and Jidenna to name a few. You don't get to that level by being comfortable. My most important influence was growing up in African-American neighborhoods and schools. I was blessed in a way that words cannot ever properly explain.

ACI:  Who is one well-known person that you would like to photograph?

ASA: Deborah (Debbie) Allen. I grew up b-boying, yet to this day, I have always admired the grace of other forms. I watched her on "Fame" growing up. She is always so classy and I believe we would create some stunning images together.

"Phoenix: Exhaled" was installed in 2020 and will stay on display through 2022.

"Phoenix: Exhaled" was installed in 2020 and will stay on display through 2022.

ACI:  How did the idea come about for the "Phoenix: Exhaled" mural that you created with Adreia? What was that collaboration like?

ASA: In a group home I lived in, we had house parents who did shifts. Mrs. Bev was the house parent everyone loved and respected. She didn't just cook meals, she showed us how to do it. She had educational games. The books were my favorite: "Five Smooth Stones," "The Count of Monte Cristo," "Art Of War," and "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." The way she read it to us, it gripped the soul. You knew this book touched her.

I didn't fully grasp it at that age, but it stayed in my soul as I watched how systematic racism destroyed so many I grew up with. In January 2019, I asked the model, Mi'onno, if she would be interested in a project. This began "Phoenix," my tribute to "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings." I wanted to work with Mi'onno, as she has that Grace Jones vibe. I was introduced to Adreia by Joshua Allen as I was looking for help getting things correct in my vision. From the moment we met, it was like she adopted me and I was family to her. She saw my vision and understood me. We worked on every detail of it, together, after the initial image was taken.  

Abdul Shaheed-Aaron and collaborator Adreia Hawkins, 2020.

ACI: If I were standing next to you, looking at the mural, what are three key elements you would point out to me?

ASA: The cage, wings, and background. On the left side, you see 1950s downtown. On the right side is the modern-day canal. The background ties in that no matter the time gone by, she (the woman featured in the mural), and so many others, are still having to escape that cage daily: Racism is just as strong now, as it was in the '50s. No matter the modern-day, pretty way it's disguised. This bird spread her wings and used what was once her cage, as her throne on this ride to her new beginnings.  

Images from Abdul Shaheed-Aaron's "Caged" series.

ACI: What are you most looking forward to as an artist in 2021?

ASA: Putting out the remainder of the Caged series. There are four other images that are just as strong. Each of those has its part in the message we wanted to put out to honor "I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings." Right now I am working on my part of the "Protest Signs" exhibition (Feb. 3-April 24) at the Herron School of Art and Design at IUPUI. The exhibition is being curated by Samuel Levi Jones. I am getting into storytelling with images. 

* All images courtesy of Abdul Shaheed-Aaron.

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