Fabian Williams" Dungeon Family pyramid finds a new home

Damaged art installation turned into a poetic statement about the plight of Atlanta's homeless

The pyramids of ancient Egypt housed the bodies of pharaohs and other great leaders. Artist Fabian Williams' Dungeon Family Pyramid on the Atlanta Beltline began as a unique work of art, only to end as housing for living visitors.

Like other historic monuments, the Dungeon Family project faced challenges in execution. A well-intentioned Kickstarter campaign fell significantly short of the $10,000 goal prior to the pyramid's proposed Sept. 14, 2014, goal date. Working as a full-time solo artist and entrepreneur without a staff proved to be overwhelming. "If you're not prepared to do a full-on campaign, you may as well not even do it," Williams says.

Tired but undeterred, Williams ultimately secured funds from Art on the Atlanta Beltline. The launch of the project fell behind and was not installed until November 2014. The original team of artists he enlisted to help was no longer available. "A lot of people I had lined up couldn't do it, so I wanted to do it myself," he says.

The delayed launch also affected materials. The outer surfaces, but not the internal skeleton, were waterproofed. The change of seasons made the construction obstacles more visible, yet welcoming — a person or people sought the pyramid as a shield from the elements. "It was never built to be shelter," Williams says. "I immediately suspected somebody would try to make it a home."

Williams considered accommodating indigent visitors by adding a floor and even building a door for easier access. Ericka Brown Davis, communications and media relations director for Atlanta Beltline Inc., shared her concerns. "Fabian is a good person with a good heart. He wanted to install light, shelves, and leave books," she says, adding that Williams' enhancements were flatly declined. "It's not safe."

Williams entered the Beltline art fray to pay homage to Atlanta's musical royalty, the Dungeon Family, a 20-plus-member collective who pioneered the eclectic hip-hop sounds of OutKast and Goodie Mob. After many ideas and sketches, he designed a small-scale model of what was to become the 8-foot-tall and 12-foot-wide pyramid.

Last July, Williams was selected as one of 100 visual and performance artists to create original work for temporary display along the Beltline. The pyramid, to be placed at the Beltline's 11.7-mile marker, came after the close of OutKast's 40-city world tour. Building a standing structure seemed like the perfect way to honor the Dungeon Family's influence on his creativity.

"When I listen to their music, I see pyramids and UFOs," he says. "A lot of art is done from feeling and that's what I felt."

The determined visual artist consulted DF member Backbone to gain insight into the way the members could be depicted. The final product was created with four sides featuring a muscled André 3000, an angelic-looking Big Boi, Goodie Mob, Joi, Janelle Monaé, Organized Noize, Big Rube, and a hieroglyphic wall with all members listed in name. The piece was topped by a clear glass capstone, which Williams wanted to originally use to filter lasers in a light display that "allows smoke to escape like a beacon from the highway." The lights were banned by the Beltline, as they could present a fire hazard.

In March, Beltline officials informed Williams that the glass capstone was missing. It was never replaced. By May, he was contacted not only to learn that the bottom hieroglyphic panel was removed, but there appeared to be evidence of someone living inside. Williams posted video to his Instagram page, @occasionalsuperstar, revealing the damage and evidence of inhabitation: several pairs of sneakers, sleeping bags, backpacks, and trash. "I'm not really mad at it. It's shelter. I just wish they would keep it clean tho," reads the caption under the video.

The contract Williams had with the Beltline stipulated that no artwork could be used as shelter. "From the inside it's no longer art," Davis says. "We appreciate the beauty of what Williams did, but it is now damaged artwork." Williams was given a week to remove it. The pyramid's tenants were never seen, but evidence of their presence shined a light on a very real problem.

The Georgia Department of Community Affairs reported that at least 16,000 people were homeless in Georgia as of January 2014. Also, the Metro Atlanta Tri-Jurisdictional Collaborative on Homelessness (Tri-J) counted more than 6,000 people with inadequate housing listed as "living on the streets, in shelters, and transitional housing in the city and counties."

The structure's use as a form of shelter brought the poetry of Dungeon Family's Goodie Mob to new life. The sentiment in the musical content such as Khujo's verse in "Chain Swang" from the World Party album ring true: "Poverty stricken, hand pickin,' in the corner cleansin'/Lights out poor, slip and you nails hell." Goodie Mob and Khujo were even more direct on the existential "Is That You God" with the words, "I think about all the homeless folk when it rains."

Conversations about the unintended use of the artwork helped the pyramid itself find a new home. Through Instagram, Nuri Icgoren, founder of Urban Sprout Farms, contacted Williams to offer space within the farm's five acres. The pyramid's rebuilding date has yet to be announced.

"They had to find a place and move very soon, and we definitely have a space here," Icgoren says. "I love the Dungeon Family, anyway. Everything came together for a reason."

Remnants of the unseen visitor or visitors remained intact until the pyramid's disassembly in early June. Williams, Icgoren, and journalist Maurice Garland, along with the Beltline's design director E. Fred Yalouris and art and culture project coordinator Elan Buchen, took the pyramid down to prepare it for reassembly on the farm. Buchen is optimistic. "It's great to see it live on in a different form," he says. "To do a sculpture outdoors is ambitious."

Williams is still interested in using his art to raise awareness and is thinking ahead about possible issues. "I would love to make a piece that would serve as shelter for someone. I would have to consider people with mental illness," he says. "... There needs to be a place where people can rest their heads in dignity."