Ulysses Jenkins: Journeys of a video griot

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Ulysses Jenkins: Journeys of a video griot
In an image provided by Bradley Hale, “Ulysses Jenkins: Without Your Interpretation,” at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Jenkins changed how artists use video, exposing how the medium reinforced racial stereotypes, then using it as a conduit for global community. At the Hammer, he gets his due. Bradley Hale via The New York Times.

by Travis Diehl

LOS ANGELES, CA.- “Two-Zone Transfer” opens with a shot of artist Ulysses Jenkins waiting for the bus. “Two-zone transfer,” he tells the driver as his coins clink into the slot. The video ends as he disembarks. In between, however, the journey is a restive tour of what Jenkins calls the “same old basic image problems” that have haunted African Americans from the start. In a smoky, surreal visitation, Jenkins encounters three Black men dressed in dark suits, cotton gloves and masks of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford smeared with shoe polish. They are minstrels, and they stage a capsule history of minstrelsy in popular entertainment. “As far as we’re concerned,” says one, in a disorienting bit of 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 in Los Angeles after a stint at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Philadelphia — asserts that Black culture doesn’t need white interpretation at all. In fact, interpretation — offered, more often than not, without understanding — is a big part of the same old problem of race in the United States.

“Two-Zone Transfer,” made in 1979, is a good introduction to Jenkins’ loose and rangy work. His grand themes are all there: A two-zone transfer is a bus ticket, sure — but also passage between realms of Black and white, haves and have-nots, harshly lit reality and vignetted dreams.

Born in Los Angeles in 1946, Jenkins has spent most of his life in Southern California, where he is duly recognized as an artists’ artist. 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 Jenkins’ work in “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 pigeonhole and into national relevance.

Like a true aesthetic straphanger, Jenkins has long traversed the interstitial, inconvenient parts of the city. He began his career in the 1970s painting murals, including a section of Judith F. Baca’s monumental “Great Wall of Los Angeles,” a half-mile-long mural in a flood control channel in North Hollywood. Later, with art-jazz happenings 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 insight that urban margins made ready stages for music, drama and dance.

Jenkins’ work acidly critiques the cloying simplifications of mass media, yet beams with the excitement of holding the means of production. His first videos were documentaries of a sort, shot on a Sony Portapak, a versatile early home video system. “Remnants of the Watts Festival” (filmed in 1972-73 but not finished until 1980 because of his lack of access to editing gear) blends concert footage of the band War performing at a commemoration of the 1965 Watts riots and piercing interviews with festival organizers. This video appears at the Hammer alongside impressionistic shorts about the art of Charles White (1978) and David Hammons (1977-82). Likewise, Jenkins’ first scripted works, including “Two-Zone Transfer,” mix staged, costumed sequences with cinéma-vérité.

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

“Two-Zone Transfer” was one of his last pieces to deal directly with the way (white) movies and TV produce Blackness. Having named the problem, Jenkins focused his efforts on a community of like minds, seeking out artists who dug his doggereal, as he calls his juking, sudden style of montage.

In 1983, Jenkins founded the prolific Othervisions video collective. The results are often witty, sometimes awkward, but synthesize image and identity in a way that reverberates in the age of TikTok. “Peace and Anwar Sadat,” from 1985, might seem like three cosmically stoned musicians jamming in front of green-screened infographics, stars and planets, and animated nuclear weapons — and it is — but the piece also pays deep tribute to the murdered Egyptian leader. In 1992, Jenkins and the Othervisions band patched into Documenta 9 in Kassel, Germany, from an “electronic café” in Santa Monica, California. It’s hard to match the participants’ excitement as a pixilated, blurry portrait crawls through sub-Atlantic phone lines and across the screen — a system that, by today’s standards, seems practically homespun.

The exhibition meanders as it follows the self-styled video griot into the 21st century — but Jenkins has never particularly enjoyed the confines of white walls. The drifts and gaps of the Hammer installation take on a montagelike, doggereal quality of their own. From a framed snapshot of Jenkins at a student protest in 1967 to a 2006 video comparing a flood-ravaged and neglected New Orleans to Sun Ra’s mythic “Planet X,” the show provides some social context, but the impulse remains to err on the side of obscurity: to present without interpretation. Jenkins’ “Video Griot Trilogy,” 1989-1991, screens in the show’s far room; in the first installment, “Self-Divination,” the protagonist wanders the parks and trash heaps of Los Angeles, interspersed with jarring Nazi rally newsreels and calming shots of a sand mandala. Similarly, the exhibition sets the viewer loose in the aesthetics of free jazz and Afrofuturism without mapping the politics.

Then again, the general refusal to overinterpret the exhibition harks back to the blacked-up 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 of West African culture. The griot’s oral, musical, performative tradition was able to survive the Middle Passage, when nearly everything else was stripped away. Minstrelsy is white culture’s way of taking that, too.

Jenkins dramatizes this threat of such stereotyping in “Mass of Images” (1978). The black-and-white video begins as Jenkins, wearing sunglasses and a glossy clear mask, rises up from behind a stack of televisions. “You’re just a mass of images you’ve gotten to know,” he recites, “from 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 hurting thing, the hidden pain, was written and bitten into your veins.” Jenkins lunges at the TVs with a sledgehammer; he’d like to smash them, he says, but “they won’t let me.”

Jenkins turns instead to menace the camera, staggering closer to the lens until his face blacks out the shot. If he can’t undo the canon, can’t disassemble the constraining, defining, interpreting “mass of images,” maybe he can make 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 presented on the Criterion Channel alongside the Hammer exhibition.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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