AFRICANamedia Is Artist Adu's Cultural Reclamation of the Media and the Message
Sunday night, the African American Museum transformed into a television studio with many channels. After preparing for a year and a half, Adu launched his art exhibit, AFRICANamedia, with a moving performance piece he wrote and directed. Keeping the crowd guessing with tonal shifts from start to finish, performers stepped out of the crowd, descended the stairs, and even stepped into the building from outside for their turn in the spotlight.
From the beginning of the performance piece, the overall theme was that the revolution will not be televised, "it will not star Clair Huxtable." Rather, it will be "digitized" and "brought on the backs of mothers who have lost their sons." The multi-media performance deftly used music, poetry, dance, acting and video to give a three-dimensional alternative to the two-dimensional take on African-American culture offered by television.
The evening started off with food and drink, music by DJ Jay Clipp, and plenty of time to take a look at the exhibit itself for reference before the performance. The exhibit begins with something of a living room. There are stacks of televisions in front of a couch with a screen crash logo painted on its cushions and a message that reads DON'T SIT YA BLACK ASS DOWN on its backside.
There are 14 televisions in 4 stacks and it is by no means a coincidence that each screen's frame is painted white. One screen was shattered; another showed the footage of Eric Garner being murdered by police; one screen was fuzzy, another blank, one had diagonal lines on it. The footage of Michael Brown's lifeless body lying on a Ferguson street occupied a couple screens.
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From there, the exhibit has sculptural portraits of four African-American women. These sculptures represent Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair, the young girls who lost their lives in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, 1963. What if they had lived to become women with unique lives? Instead they are used as visual images and symbols, remembered according to the context in which they are placed by the media.
On the walls a series of triptychs focused on different body parts of African-American women. The pieces start from the bottom. The one that focuses on lips, for example, starts with several sets of lips turned sideways, and therefore sexualized, with nothing but a blue backdrop. But the image in the middle is invaded with pieces of television lines and crash screen logos. The top image shows the lips completely saturated by the light and dark video lines, rendering them unrecognizable.
There are similar pieces involving the breasts and hair of African-American women until the pieces devolve into something even more disturbing: Black and white pictures, often in the shape of a teardrop, of eyes, mouths and bodies in bizarre positions. The images are hard to describe, but what they convey is definitely sinister. Adu is showing how television has sexualized and demonized African-Americans. All of these pieces have stickers that read PSA: I AM ART, DON'T TOUCH ME.
But the last three pieces of the exhibit represent the struggle to reclaim what it means to be African-American as portrayed by the media. One has a gruesome, upside down face juxtaposed with an angry face and a backdrop of slogans. Another has the face of an African-American that doesn't resemble any stereotype we are used to seeing on the television. The last piece is a call for change, with text that begins, "A start, a work of art to revolutionize."
Divided into eight "channels," the performance began with intense spoken word poetry backed by gorgeous piano. Instead of commercials in between the stations, or programs, there was more poetry from a character who seemed to break the fourth wall. Starting with, "The recovery of a slave nation is far too delicate for light conversation," he typically provided a historical context for the content.
The second channel was "Breaking Black News," with a newscaster reporting on disturbing acts of racism. The next channel was beautiful and heartbreaking; it absolutely stunned the crowd. Descending the stairs of the AAM to the sound of a male operatic voice performing live, four actresses made their way to the stage. Each one represented one of those young lives lost in Birmingham, reimagined as young brides. After the performance, they went to the exhibition and stood with the sculptures.
From there, a white newscaster happily told the story of a black athlete. Digging into his personal life, speculating on the meaning of a private photograph, and condemning his culture, the reporter gleefully exploited a possible scandal for the sake of ratings and advertising revenue. On the next channel, the athlete told his side of the story, offered his personal philosophy, as well as facts not offered by the press.
The next two channels were among the strongest. One dealt with the appropriation of African-American culture for non-blacks, specifically "Twerk History." A dance ensemble appeared with drums and performed an extended routine that drew one of the biggest reactions from the crowd. The next program was a wonderful tribute to African-American television free of stereotypes. A group performed rousing renditions of themes from shows like A Different World, Good Times, In Living Color, and The Jeffersons.
As an art exhibition, AFRICANamedia is well worth seeing. The social commentary, imagination, and the call to reclaim the representation of a culture are all present. But overall it conveys a mood that is static and grim. The performance piece brought humor and joy to the mix. This increased not only the overall complexity, but also the profundity of thought.
AFRICANamedia runs through October 25 at The African American Museum of Dallas.
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