Credit: Darrow Montgomery

“They’re meant to be ghostly, they’re meant to be haunting—the absence of a body where there should be one,” says Nehemiah Dixon III, the artist who created “Hoodie 1, 2 and 3.” 

From a distance, the hoodies appear to be floating over a Foggy Bottom sidewalk. They’re big and hollow and the hoods are up. On the outside, the hoodies are a fading, weathered white; on the inside they’re black. Dixon produced all three from the same mold.  

They have been posted up outside attorney Julie Oliver-Zhang’s home office for six months. “At first it was daunting because it’s very stark, it’s a very solemn piece,” she says. “My son saw it when he came back from school. He’s 5 years old, and he said, ‘Mommy, who put the ghosts in the yard?’” 

Dixon’s three hoodies comprise one of 15 works in the 2018 Arts in Foggy Bottom Outdoor Sculpture Biennial, Absence & Presence. Each sculpture is by a different artist and stands in a different yard along a winding five-block route between 26th Street NW on the west and New Hampshire Avenue NW on the east. 

The sculptures have stood outside Oliver-Zhang’s office since late April—through a summer of relentless rain and national news. Through three seasons, she has had countless conversations with the passersby who now linger in front of her otherwise unremarkable front yard. 

“There was a law enforcement officer who I had a conversation with, and he said to me, ‘Just as you, a Chinese American, would feel unwelcome by a home that flew the Confederate flag in the South, I feel threatened and attacked. I would not come for your help when you have statues like this in front of your house,’” recounts Oliver-Zhang. “And there’s no judgement in this, in what he said to me. It’s just that we all have very different backgrounds, and that’s also the beauty of America. But we must reflect on what we are bringing to the table—our own experience, our own prejudice.”

On the other end of the response spectrum, a woman who walked by during Unite the Right 2, a white nationalist rally in August, told Oliver-Zhang about a time, some four decades ago, when the woman and her college girlfriends were driving through the South. The young women passed a car full of Klansmen with their white hoods on, and they screamed at the sight. “It was beyond her that it was so long ago, and that these racists and fascists are raising their ugly heads again,” says Oliver-Zhang. “It was just unimaginable for her that this was happening.”

Dixon has had his share of conversations, too. A few weeks ago he went to take down one of the hoodies because it was damaged, and a woman passing by simply thanked him. “I’ve been able to have conversations that wouldn’t have normally occurred without the hoodies present,” he says.

Artist Helen Frederick, who selected Dixon’s sculpture and co-curated the exhibit with Peter Winant, has also had new conversations. She is the one who matched Dixon and Oliver-Zhang. The former had never had a piece in the Foggy Bottom Outdoor Sculpture Biennial, and the latter had never hosted one. 

“They emailed me and asked me if I wanted to be a part of it,” says Oliver-Zhang. “And I said ‘Sure!’ I guess my yard is now clean enough more routinely that we’ve been selected.” She got an image of the hoodies, but they were black in the picture. She didn’t know what to expect. 

“But when I saw these sculptures, it resonated with me right away,” she says. “Nehemiah is just a wonderful, wonderful person. He actually teaches kids art. He has been an avid advocate for social justice, and it really comes through in his artwork.”

On another day, in a separate interview, Dixon says: “Pairing with Julie was amazing. I knew immediately from meeting her and her husband, and finding out that she was a social justice advocate and what she does with her law practice—it just meant a lot.” 

Dixon is from Southeast D.C. He has a studio at Red Dirt Studios in Mount Rainier, and through his company, Nonstop Art, he works with developers to “create makerspaces in affordable housing communities,” he says. 

He’s been making his hoodie sculptures for a few years now. The final verdict in the case against George Zimmerman, who shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in the name of a “neighborhood watch,” inspired the work. Martin was wearing a hoodie when he died. 

“You had lawmakers suddenly showing up on TV wearing a hoodie. You had, for a very brief moment, people wearing hoodies where they shouldn’t have been. It was a very nice tribute,” says Dixon. “I wanted to do more than a painting, I wanted to do more than a drawing. I wanted to examine how I felt, and how other people saw me. And visibility plays a part, intimidation plays a part.”

He first created black hoodie sculptures made from actual fabric. These hoodies, titled “Suits of Armor,” have had their own tour, appearing in Prince George’s African American Museum & Cultural Center, Galerie Myrtis in Baltimore, 39th Street Gallery in Brentwood, Maryland, Watergate Gallery in D.C., and at Busboys and Poets. 

“My original goal was to make hundreds of these things and display them everywhere,” he says. (He is looking for the funding to accomplish that.)

To make the white version, Dixon created a plaster outer shell and then a silicon inner shell. “What you’re seeing is the casting result of fiberglass and resin,” he says. “I am making copies from a copy. It’s the negative of the hoodies.” 

One of his inspirations was Jim Dine’s paintings of robes—the idea of “giving meaning to an item of clothing when it shouldn’t be there.” 

Oliver-Zhang sees profound meaning in the sculpture. She immigrated to the United States at 10, and says, “I have always believed that I am an American, and that I am part of this grand melting-pot. I have never felt so foreign, and such an outsider, as I do now.”

From working with her immigrant clients, she sees a systematic, organized effort to push immigrants out of the U.S., to make conditions so difficult for them that they leave. She heard white nationalist leader Richard Spencer explain his vision for America in a radio broadcast, and she saw it as something that is coming true before her eyes.  

“You make social policies and political policies so hostile that there is no redress for minorities, that it causes them to not want to be here because they’re being killed with no redress, with no remedy,” she says. “And that’s not America. That’s not justice. That’s a very dark place.”

She’s taken to thinking of the hoodies as guardian angels more than ghosts.

The 2018 Arts in Foggy Bottom Outdoor Sculpture Biennial, Absence & Presence, is on display until October 27.