Ulysse Jenkins: The Travels of a Video Griot

LOS ANGELES — “Two-Zone Transfer” opens with a photo of artist Ulysses Jenkins waiting for the bus. “Two-zone transfer,” he tells the d...


LOS ANGELES — “Two-Zone Transfer” opens with a photo of artist Ulysses Jenkins waiting for the bus. “Two-zone transfer,” he tells the driver as his coins clink in the slot. The video ends as he disembarks. In between, however, the trip is a choppy tour of what Jenkins calls the “same old grassroots image issues” that have haunted African Americans from the start. In a smoky, surreal visit, Jenkins encounters three black men dressed in dark suits, cotton gloves, and masks of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford smeared in shoe polish. They are minstrels and they feature a capsule story of minstrelsy in popular entertainment. “As far as we are concerned,” one says, in disorienting racial cosplay, “your culture needs our interpretation.”

Jenkins disagrees. “Ulysses Jenkins: without your interpretation” — the video artist’s first major museum retrospective, at the Hammer Museum after a stint at the Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA) in Philadelphia — asserts that black culture does not need a white interpretation at all. In fact, interpretation – offered, more often than not, without understanding – is a big part of the same old race problem in the United States.

“Two-Zone Transfer”, made in 1979, is a good introduction to Jenkins’ loose and expansive work. Its broad themes are all there: a two-zone transfer is a bus ticket, of course — but also a passage between the realms of Black and White; haves and have-nots; harshly lit reality and vignette dreams.

Born in Los Angeles in 1946, Jenkins has spent most of his life in Southern California, where he is duly recognized as an artist of artists. He has taught at the University of California, Irvine since 1993. “Without Your Interpretation” represents the passing of the flame to a younger generation: curators Erin Christovale and Meg Onli write in the catalog that they both encountered the work of Jenkins on “Now Dig This!” Art & Black Los Angeles 1960-1980”, organized by Kellie Jones in 2011 (also at the Hammer). “Without Your Interpretation” aims to dig Jenkins out of a regional locker and into national relevance.

As a true aesthetic master key, Jenkins has long crisscrossed the interstitial and uncomfortable neighborhoods of the city. He began his career in the 1970s painting murals, including some of the monumental work of Judith F. Baca.Great Wall of Los Angelesa half-mile-long mural in a flood control canal in North Hollywood. Later, with art-jazz events like 1984’s “Without Your Interpretation” on the dock of the old Pickle Works Building near the Los Angeles River, Jenkins would build on the idea that urban margins prepare stages for music, theater and dance.

Jenkins’ work sourly critiques the sickening simplifications of mass media, but radiates the excitement of owning the means of production. His first videos were documentaries of sorts, shot on a Sony Portapak, one of the first general-purpose home video systems. “Remains of the Watts Festival” (filmed in 1972/73 but not completed until 1980 due to its lack of access to editing equipment) mixes concert footage of the band War at a commemoration of the 1965 Watts riots and hard-hitting interviews with the organizers of the festival. This video appears at the Hammer alongside impressionist short films on the art of Charles White (1978) and David Hammons (1977/82). Likewise, Jenkins’ early scripted works, including “Two-Zone Transfer,” mix staged and costumed footage with cinema verité.

That Jenkins was bypassed by art history seems self-evident. Many of his ambient and experimental videos seem locked into the moment they were made. But Jenkins has also made his mark by engaging with other SoCal artists – studying with Betye Saar and Chris Burden, mixing with David Hammons and Barbara T. Smith, collaborating with Kerry James Marshall and Senga Nengudi and members of Asco, the East Los Angeles art collective. The curators include several examples of Jenkins’ synesthetic insight, such as his production of Harry Gamboa’s absurd teleplay “No Supper” in 1987, in which a Chicano family eats ideas for dinner; and his videography for “Cake Walk” by choreographer Houston Conwill (filmed in 1983), a reference to the Dance whereby enslaved Africans secretly mocked their masters.

“Two-Zone Transfer” was one of his last pieces to deal directly with how (white) movies and TV produce Blackness. After naming the problem, Jenkins focused his efforts on a community of like-minded people, seeking out artists who dug his doggeralas he calls his juking and sudden editing style.

In 1983, Jenkins founded the prolific video collective Othervisions. The results are often witty, sometimes clunky, but synthesize image and identity in a way that carries over into the age of TikTok. “Peace and Anouar Sadat”, from 1985 may look like three cosmically stoned musicians jamming past green-screen computer graphics, animated stars and planets and nukes – and it is – but the piece also pays deep homage to the Egyptian leader assassinated. In 1992, Jenkins and the band Othervisions tuned into Documenta 9 in Kassel, Germany from an “electronic cafe” in Santa Monica, California. It’s hard to match the excitement of the attendees as a pixelated, blurry portrait crawls through sub-Atlantic phone lines. and through the screen, a system that by today’s standards looks practically homemade.

The exhibit winds its way following the so-called video griot into the 21st century – but Jenkins never particularly enjoyed the limitations of white walls. The drifts and gaps of the Hammer setup take on a fit and dogger quality all their own. From a framed snapshot of Jenkins at a 1967 student protest to a 2006 video comparing a flood-ravaged and neglected New Orleans to Sun Ra’s mythical “Planet X,” the show provides some social context. , but the impulse remains to err on the dark side: to present without interpretation. Jenkins’ ‘Video Griot Trilogy’, 1989-1991, screens in the farthest room from the show; in the first episode, “Self-Divination,” the protagonist roams the parks and trash heaps of Los Angeles, intercut with jarring Nazi newsreels and soothing shots of a sand mandala. Likewise, the exhibition immerses the viewer in the aesthetics of free jazz and Afrofuturism without mapping out their politics.

Again, the general refusal to over-interpret the exposition is reminiscent of the blacked-out presidents in “Two-Zone Transfer.” The minstrel in European and North American society evolved as a parody – an ignorant interpretation – of the griot, the storyteller and guide to West African culture. The oral, musical and performative tradition of the griot was able to survive the Middle Passage, when almost everything else was stripped away. Minstrel is also how white culture takes it.

Jenkins dramatizes this threat of such a stereotype in “Mass of Pictures” (1978). The black-and-white video begins as Jenkins, wearing sunglasses and a shiny transparent mask, rises from behind a stack of televisions. “You’re just a mass of images you’ve come to know,” he recites, “years and years of TV shows.” Stills from “Birth of a Nation” and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” fill the screen. He begins the poem again. “The thing that hurts, the hidden pain, has been written and bitten into your veins.” Jenkins rushes at the TVs with a hammer – he would like to smash them, he says, but “they won’t let me”.

Jenkins instead turns to threaten the camera, moving closer to the lens until his face blackens the shot. If he can’t undo the canon, can’t disassemble the constraining, defining and interpreting ‘mass of images’, maybe he can create his own.



Ulysses Jenkins: without your interpretation

Through May 15, The Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles; 310-443-7000; hammer.ucla.edu. “Ulysses Jenkins: Video Griot”, a collection of 12 of his videos, is featured on Criterion Channel alongside the Hammer exhibit.


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