Six years following the death of 14-year-old Yore Jieng, who was killed by a stray bullet while riding in his older sister’s car, a new mural in the Oakridge Neighborhood will memorialize his life.
This is the second mural dedicated to Jieng. Des Moines-native Jordan Weber designed and painted “King Yore I,” which was completed in 2021, and the recently completed “King Yore II.” The new mural faces the Blank Children’s Hospital on Center Street, where Jieng took his last breaths.
The Greater Des Moines Public Art Foundation celebrated the mural with a youth engagement event. Weber spoke with children in the Oakridge Neighborhood about the concepts for the murals, becoming an artist and the power of public art and green spaces.
“King Yore II” depicts a titled crown atop flowers from South Sudan and yellow and purple butterflied. Jieng’s family immigrated from Sudan in 2002, shortly before Jieng was born.
“The idea was to honor Yore. The idea was to also put a Nubian crown on Yore’s head slightly tilted, because we know how hard it is to make it out of situations that we may be from,” Weber explained. “It’s extremely difficult for me to think of Yore, another individual who we’ve lost, not only in Oakridge but in Des Moines, individuals that I’ve lost, and some recent tragedies in Des Moines. It’s impossible for me to think about the potential that was wasted by a young individual of ours being murdered.”
In “King Yore I,” Jieng wears the titled Nubian crown and a Lakers jersey. He loved basketball and LeBron James. The mural covers Oakridge’s basketball court, between the Community Center and the Variety Center.
Weber wanted to depict Jieng wearing a crown to represent him as royalty because “we come from that.” The Sudanese plants and flowers, which take center stage in “King Yore II,” represent nature’s ability to heal the body from stress and trauma.
“We need to think about art that actually ‘does the thing.’ This talks about and shows what we can do, or what we want to do, to honor individuals we’ve lost,” Weber said. “We really need to get to a point where we’re actually doing the thing.”
Jieng’s mother, Lory Kuon, saw “King Yore II” for the first time last October. As she approached the mural, her words fell silent and her paced slowed to a stop. She stood still for several moments, soaking in the painting, before taking a picture.
Kuon said both Oakridge murals make her feel good inside, almost like home, like she can still see her son.
Jieng’s sister, Nyekuoth Jieng, appreciates everyone who worked to memorialize her brother. She thinks the murals show his personality and life.
“I just want to thank them for that, because when I see that, I see my brother’s remembrance,” Nyekuoth said. “He’s still being remembered in what he enjoyed in life, and just everyone that he has touched, that when they look at that [mural], they have some sort of remembrance of him.”
Oakridge Neighborhood’s Vice President of Communications Chris Irvine said the mural represents not just Jieng, but the entire Oakridge community.
“It just really is a beautiful portrayal of what could have been for this young man, but I love the way with this new piece, it combines the florals from so many of our residents, home countries,” Irvine said. “Our neighborhood is 72 percent immigrants and refugees, and they’re from over 26 countries. So, we are really a wonderful neighborhood of people from all over the world. And I think this really pays tribute to that.”
Oakridge Neighborhood is a nonprofit housing and human services organization founded in 1969. It serves a wide range of cultures, many of which are represented by the mural’s African flowers, like the Sudanese hibiscus flower.
“They’re here to provide a better life for their families and so when something this completely random and senseless happens — this young man was just sitting in a car at it at a convenience store. There’s been no determination of why this happened — as a community we rally around,” Irvine said.
The Greater Des Moines Public Art Foundation commissioned both murals, and “King Yore I” was funded through SWISH, a public art program that turns basketball courts into beautiful art pieces in low-income areas.
Jieng is one of thousands killed by gun violence in Iowa. There have been 4,963 gun-related deaths in the state from 1999 to 2020, according to the CDC. Of those, 4,075 were deaths by intentional self-harm, 780 were assaults with a handgun or firearm, 50 were deaths of undetermined intent and 55 were by legal intervention. Iowa has an 11.2 firearm mortality rate, ranking 38th in the nation.
In 2021, Gov. Kim Reynolds and the Iowa Legislature passed HF 756, which allows anyone 21 and older to purchase or carry a firearm without a permit, though background check are still required for each purchase. In the 2022 election Iowans approved an amendment to the state constitution making it more difficult to pass gun safety laws.
“What can art do to help us as Black and brown folks in the Midwest be safer? Where can we draw power from art?” Weber asked.
Weber will continue his breathing through adversity idea that started with a Minneapolis project Deep Roots: Prototype for Poetry vs Rhetoric. He hopes to complete the project in the fall, using solar panels to spell the words “Inhale, Exhale” on the roof of Mainframe Studios.
“This self-sustainable mantra to focus on your breathing, to calm down and to focus on the difficulty of simple actions by Black, brown and Indigenous people like breathing or walking down the street without being seen as a threat,” Weber said.
He also plants to create green spaces downtown that would provide low- or no-cost healthy food in a sustainable way.
Jieng’s case remains unsolved, but his story has stayed forefront in the minds of Oakridge residents through the efforts of artists and advocates.