Ulysses Jenkins: Without Your Interpretation

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From May 19 to October 22 2021, the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) at the University of Pennsylvania will present Without Your Interpretation, the first major retrospective on the work of pioneering video/performance artist Ulysses Jenkins. The exhibition is co-curated and organised by ICA; Andrea B. Laporte; Meg Onli; Erin Christovale, Associate Curator at Hammer Museum; University of California, Los Angeles, where the exhibition will travel in winter 2022.

Ulysses Jenkins (b.1946 Los Angeles, lives Los Angeles) is a pioneering video artist, who has a pivotal influence on contemporary art for over 50 years. His video and media work is remarkable for its fusion of forms to conjure vibrant expressions of how image, sound, and cultural iconography inform representation. Using archival footage, photographs, image processing, and elegiac soundtracks, Jenkins pulls together various strands of thought to construct an ‘other’ history that consistently interrogates questions of race and gender as they relate to ritual, history, and the power of the state.

Beginning as a painter and muralist, Jenkins was introduced to video just as the first consumer cameras were made available to individuals, and he quickly seized upon the television technology as a means to broadcast alternative and critical depictions of multiculturalism—citing the catalyst of Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) and its call to Black filmmakers to control their subject-hood by controlling the media depicting them. Adopting the role of a ‘video griot,’ Jenkins draws upon the inspiration of oral traditions in videos that are often structured around music and poetic recitation, as well as dynamic performances.

From his work with Video Venice News, an L.A. media collective he founded in the early 1970s, to his involvement with the artist group Studio Z (alongside David Hammons, Senga Nengudi, and Maren Hassinger), and his video and performance works with Othervisions Studio, Jenkins explicitly comments on how white supremacy is embedded in popular culture and its effects on subjectivity. Throughout his career, Jenkins studied under Charles White, Chris Burden, and Betye Saar; he has worked collaboratively with a plethora of artists including Kerry James Marshall, who performed in Jenkins’ influential video Two-Zone Transfer (1979); Hammons, who was the subject of the documentary film King David (1978); and Nengudi and Hassinger, both of whom appeared in his video Dream City (1981).

Requiring three years of intensive research by the curators involving studio visits, digitising a sprawling archive, and conversations with Jenkins and his collaborators, the exhibition, which has been organised closely with the artist, will encompass a broad range of his video pieces, collaborative works, mural paintings, photography, and performances highlighting the scope of Jenkins’ practice.

Among the many video works included in the exhibition is Mass of Images (1978), a groundbreaking video art piece considered one of the first works in the genre by a Black artist. In the video, Jenkins critiques the media’s role in perpetuating racist and harmful images of Black people in America. This and many other video works and performances included in the exhibition are grounded in contemporary conversations regarding inequality and environmental devastation amplified by unchecked capitalism, governmental oppression, and systemic racism’s impact on Black cultural production.

Technology’s role in building community is a primary concern across Jenkins’ work. Just as he innovatively used nascent technology to address the pressing issues of his day, the exhibition will utilise current technology to capture the artist’s original intent to foster international collaboration, increase access to shared experiences, and provide a platform for marginalised voices.

Many emerging Black video artists who came of age in the 1990s and early-2000s, cite Jenkins as a major influence in their work. Jenkins’ ground-breaking and prescient work is only now being revisited by scholars, curators, and other artists. The political and social commentary present in his work makes it particularly relevant in today’s context, such as the importance of Native American cultural production in Being Witness: The Haida Project (1990), interrogations of Black stereotypes in the American entertainment industry in Mass of Images (1978) and Two Zone Transfer (1979), and calls to protect the rights of indigenous groups and champion environmental conservation in Bay Window (1991) and Talking Hut (1994).

Public programming will provide another layer of interpretation to Jenkins’ work and will allow audiences the opportunity to consider and debate key underlying themes, including the power of racist and stereotypical imagery, systemic models of oppression, and the transmission of knowledge through new technological advancements. Plans include a restaging of two of his seminal works, Dream City (1981) and Columbus Day: A Doggereal (1981).

The exhibition will be accompanied by the first publication devoted to the artist’s work, jointly produced by ICA and the Hammer, and designed by LA-based design studio Ella. The publication will feature contributions by exhibition curators Erin Christovale, Meg Onli, and Jacqueline Stewart, the professor of cinema studies at the University of Chicago. Also included will be a reprint of Written and Bitten: Ulysses Jenkins and the Non-Ontology of Blackness by the scholar and artist, Aria Dean; and reflections by the artists Maren Hassinger, Senga Nengudi and the art historian and curator, Kellie Jones.

A microsite will host digital content from the exhibition, such as printed matter and archival material to a virtual curator-led tour of the exhibition. Without Your Interpretation is majorly sponsored by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.

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