(Star of Ethiopia), 2013. 2-channel
HD video installation, 8 minutes.
In a career that has evolved from the performing arts to performance
art, Jefferson Pinder consistently probes themes of racial identity through
live performance, video, and sculpture. Key works such as Ben-Hur, Afro-
Cosmonaut/Alien (White Noise), Overture (Star of Ethiopia), and Dark
Matter meld historical legacy with current events, adopting references
from W.E.B. Du Bois, Hollywood cinema, and Afrofuturism. His mixedmedia
sculpture Mothership (Capsule), assembled from lumber used
to build Barack Obama's first inauguration platform and other salvaged
materials, is a centerpiece of the contemporary art collection at the
Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture,
with musician George Clinton's P-Funk concert prop "The Mothership"
displayed in an adjoining gallery. A professor at the School of the Art
Institute of Chicago, Pinder received a United States Artists Joyce Fellowship
for performance in 2016, a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2017, and
was honored by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden the same
Laura Roulet: You began by training in
theater. How did you make the transition
to visual art?
Jefferson Pinder: I loved theater, but then
I noticed all of the production mechanisms
that left actors without a lot of control. I
wanted more control over what I created.
I wanted to be the director, and I started
a theater company called Middle Passage
Guerrilla Theater Company with a couple
friends out in Seattle. I was interested in
the human condition and drama, so I began
to invest my time in that. Eventually I went
to grad school and had a horrible experience.
That's when I began to transition into
making more on my own, and I began my
studio practice in the late 1990s.
Funknik, 2014. Salvaged tin, wood, steel, linoleum, and audio, 80 x 60 x 52 in.; 45 minutes.
LR: What was your first video?
JP: Nothing Clear in 1999. I got my hands
on a Super-8 camera and focused on gentrification
in Seattle's Central District. I had
my first art show there that same year.
It was collage, derivative of David Driskell,
whom I admire. But the video really bridged
the gap between my performance practice
and my studio on Capitol Hill. With Nothing
Clear, I was capturing black and white portraits
of people on the street. It's a spontaneous
collection of ghosts--black folks who
are no longer there. That's why I'm really
partial to 8mm film. It's nostalgic and seems
to speak of another time.
LR: If we compare Marathon (2003), an
early work in which you are the performer,
and Ben-Hur, a public artwork performed
on March 22, 2012 at the Corcoran Gallery
of Art in Washington, DC, in which you
served as director, do they share related
JP: I would say I'm more than the director.
I'm the artist. All the individuals represent
me. They're proxies, stand-ins, representatives
for private thoughts. The individuals
performing in this piece represent something
universal, and also something
personal. It's like in Revival (2013) or Juke
(2011), where I have black people lip-synching
to "white" music such as Queen's
"Bohemian Rhapsody" and country. That's
my music, on my iPad; it has a connection
to me. It also raises questions of who
"owns" music, and how cultural stereotypes
are formed. Directing, that's not
sacred enough. This is empowering because these individuals are empowering your vision. If you
work in performance art, you want it to be real. The performance
is the thing. Capturing the moment can have
a lot of power. I guess that's why I'm fascinated with
performance being live and happening in the moment.
LR: When you include other performers, they're not
professional actors. Do you always know how something's
going to end?
JP: Ben-Hur is a durational work in which the individuals
work together like a synchronized team, but some elements
are out of their control. There are so many variables.
It becomes exciting in the moments when you
don't know what's going to happen next--you set up
the environment, but anything can happen. After three
weeks of rehearsals, I had an understanding of the individual
performers--what they were capable of, when
their energy was going to cut out--but then you put in
200 spectators. The performer who was a smoker was
the most interesting to watch. Some days he'd push
himself on the machine, and I was seriously concerned.
Everyone is coming into the work with their own experiences
and limitations. They're not trained performers.
How do you rehearse this, and not lose the spontaneity?
That's the big challenge.
LR: How do you choose performers?
JP: I am drawn to people who believe in the absurdity
of the work, who can be honest in the execution of
an action. Sometimes it's people who want to work with
me. For Overture (Star of Ethiopia), I found Diamond
Stingily, a strong, young black woman who was working
at American Apparel. She was perfect. She represents
a Du Bois-ian vision of the future. She continues
to have an impressive career.
LR: Can you talk more about the background of
W.E.B. Du Bois in relation to Overture (Star of Ethiopia)
JP: I was working on a commission for the University
of Massachusetts at Amherst. The museum asked us
to look into his legacy. Pageantry has always been
fascinating to me as a means of communication. It's
like a variety show. I had no idea that Du Bois wrote
a pageant. The Star of Ethiopia was his dramatic,
10,000-year history of the black race. In 1911, it was
performed in an open arena with thousands of people--
it was the first dose of black pride and African
American history. Duke Ellington, who saw it in DC,
said it was transformative. It combines German opera
with black spirituals. The last vision is of a veiled
woman, a personification of black female strength
who leads the race, flying away in a golden chariot,
holding a bust of Abraham Lincoln. It's so bizarre, and
ahead of its time. I recommend it. Thinking about
Afrofuturism, how do you look forward and stay connected
to the past? Du Bois was a visionary.
Mothership (Capsule), 2009. Salvaged wood, tin, 22-inch chrome ring, and audio, 92.5
x 75 x 86 in.
LR: How did Afrofuturism become part of your work?
JP: I first became interested in the terminology around 2008, but I was an
Afrofuturist well before I knew what it was. Octavia Butler was writing Afrofuturist
books before the terminology came about, as were George Clinton
and Ralph Ellison, who was writing in an abstract, forward-thinking, innovative
way. What's brilliant about the terminology of Afrofuturism is that it
gives us a new way of talking about something very familiar. The term was
first coined in the 1990s, but the ideas are seen again and again. African
Americans have a particular cultural knowledge, or baggage, that's
grounded in something real. Du Bois is a source of information about this
"double consciousness." It takes a mighty strength to reconcile these two
forces. It sounds like something from a science-fiction movie. You're dealing
with a dichotomy, an alternate identity of being who you are, and then trying
to figure out how to exist in the real world.
It's what happens when you superimpose the supernatural with the everyday.
It becomes a new perspective on looking at things. I love how broad it
is; it has depths and layers. I see it as strongly connected with magic realism.
LR: Could you talk about Mothership (Capsule) (2009), which you made from
President Obama's first inaugural platform? How did you get access to the
material? Did you know what you were going to make from it?
JP: I knew that I wanted to build some kind of vessel.
A friend of mine, who worked at a local salvage yard,
called me and said, "You'll never believe this, but
Obama's inauguration platform just came in on a truck,
and we can't tell anyone. We have to sell the scrap
wood." So, I went over and filled my truck. A few older
African American men were also going through the
wood. I asked one man what he was going to build with
it, and he said, "A deck." It makes you think about physical
items that have a significance and how history manifests
in different ways. It's never really gone.
LR: What about the embedded meanings of materials
and the importance of authenticity?
JP: The materials speak to you. The history speaks to
you. In the Quilts of Gee's Bend, one woman used fragments
of her dead husband's work clothes. So, the quilt
has the power to keep you warm at night, and it also
contains his blood, sweat, and tears. Then it becomes
sacred. That's what I'm seeking to do with my work.
Somehow it's got to transcend. I aspire to this kind of
purity. It's the same with the performances as it is with
the objects. The viewer has to go on a journey and
needs to feel in a different place after experiencing
the work. In the best-case scenario, someone will be
LR: How did the platform become a space capsule?
Monolith (Dream Catcher) (detail), 2015. Black one-way glass, West African masks, and LED, 96 x 48 x 12 in.
JP: I was thinking about vessels, about being in something
protective. The rugged surface was like a reflection
of the experience of that journey. The tin on
the capsule is the brown skin that looks rusted and
decayed, like it could have been dragged up from the
bottom of the ocean. It's playing with the idea of a relic.
The sound is an audio collage. I worked with Scott Mallory,
an amazing new media artist, and we took sample
sounds that had an abstract connection to Obama.
There are all kinds of noises that come together to create
a cacophony that plays through the bass speaker. In
the end, it's a mesh of information that's only really felt
through the skin. There's an ebb and flow, a heartbeat
or pulse. We also used Obama's first speech about
NASA and space exploration, and how he grew up in the
'60s, connected with this idea of transformation. It was
a really wonderful speech. All of these things come
together to create a collage. There were many aesthetic
choices made with the piece, in terms of my idea of
connecting things that don't necessarily seem like they
LR: Your 2015 exhibition "Onyx Odyssey," at the Hyde
Park Art Center in Chicago, included other Afrofuturist
JP: That's a great way of looking at it, though the
Chicago Tribune wrote an incredible piece connecting it
with Black Lives Matter. The thinking is pushing forward
in new directions, but it's still grounded in where our society is right now. I liked that show. It was a different way of communicating, of thinking
about legacy in the everyday. It worked because the pieces are an abstract expression
of something that may be otherworldly, but when you come closer, it becomes familiar.
I was thinking that the dimensions of Monolith (Dream Catcher) are the same as those of
the monolith in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The African masks were all acquired through
eBay and Craigslist; people didn't want them anymore. The masks fuel the work. We don't
know where they are from, but they're ubiquitous in African American homes. There were
masks in my home growing up. We never really talked about whether they were real or not,
or about where they were from. But somehow, if they were used in a ceremony, they
became sacred. So, all of these collected objects become sacred again, empowered. You
don't even see all of them, but it's a contained force.
Assimilated, 2009. Neon and charcoal,
72 x 30 x 18 in.
LR: Your work involves a lot of physical language, maybe body language from your experience
as an actor.
JP: It's visual language or body language. I spent a lot of time as an actor working on body
language. Stage acting has got to be physical. The best actors are dynamic and physical,
unscripted. For performance, I think spoken word gets in the way. The body has been really
important for me.
LR: How much does race still factor into your work?
JP: I'm evaluating how I communicate about it. We're not talking about a small thing.
It will always be central to my work, but maybe now I don't have to say it. Do I have to
mention my identity in everything I do? In every work I've done, there are a multitude
of other things to talk about as well. I embrace it on one hand; but on the other, I see
the potential limitations of the conversation. We're moving toward more acceptance of
a politicized gallery or museum world, so how do you be savvy within that framework?
LR: How would you define the central themes of your work?
JP: Endurance. People. I like making work that wrestles with history and challenges notions
of blackness. In Ben-Hur, I was thinking of a 1950s cinematic representation of a slave galley.
But when people saw it, they were thinking about a Middle Passage slave ship. Slaves didn't
row then. It's not logical, but it's beautiful when you bring all these other associations into
the piece. Formally, I'm mesmerized by the interaction between bodies, as activated
by spectators. I'm also interested in stillness and darkness with some of the portrait work.
LR: Why do you choose a coat and tie as the
uniform for your performers, as in Ben-Hur?
JP: Because it's a uniform for a particular
kind of work. I think of my dad in the '60s
wearing a coat and tie. Or the civil rights
activists, going South and getting people to
vote. The formality of the day, and countering
the white man--that's how memory
works in these visual images. Also it's
absurd to do physical labor in a suit. Audience
members became complicit in the performance.
They were witnesses, watching
people work. The relationship between the
museum-goer, the grandeur of the architecture,
the classical ideals of beauty, and
the black body under duress. It's admirable,
heroic. There's a particular strain of masculinity
in the work. There are so few
images of black masculinity with dignity.
Historically, black artists have been
restoring a humanistic dignity to the arts.
For many years, we've been forced to work
with the white model of seeing the world.
It's imbedded in the institutions of learning.
Perhaps what I'm getting at is that many
white artists never have to grapple with this
sort of self-examination. For centuries, that
was the story that was never told.
Laura Roulet is an independent curator and
writer based in Washington, DC.
Susan Krane is executive director of Working Assumptions, a California
foundation that supports the arts and produces creative
projects, and a former museum director and curator.