Congo Square: Afrofuturism as a Space of Confrontation
Presented in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree Master in Fine Arts in
the Graduate School of The Ohio State University
Jameel Paulin, B.A.
Graduate Program in Art
The Ohio State University
George Rush, Adviser
Congo Square is an audio-visual album set in virtual reality. Through the digital immersion of virtual reality, I explore afrofuturism as a project of world-building and liberating subjectivity by centering the afro-diasporic experience in the development of both the symbolism and visual language of the work.
This thesis is dedicated to the many ancestors and martyrs without whom my life and work would not exist. To mention a few: Kenneth Dixson Sr., Ernest “Doc” Paulin, Fr.
James Nakamura, John T. Scott, Elizabeth Catlett, Dorothy Day, St. Oscar Romero,
Thomas Merton, James Yancey, Alton Sterling, Tamir Rice, and Tyre King.
To George Rush, my thesis advisor, and the rest of my committee, Gina Osterloh and
Jared Thorne, I extend my deepest gratitude. Your consistent support and challenging engagement with my evolving work over the last several years has been invaluable. I wish also to thank the faculty at Ohio State’s Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design: Vita Berezina-Blackburn, Alex Oliszewski, and Shadrick Addy, for introducing me to the realm of virtual reality. To Fr. Phillip J. Linden Jr. S.S.J, I thank you for inspiring me and teaching me the perspective of the underside of history. To my grandfather Kenneth, I love and miss you dearly and wish you a peaceful rest. Finally, I would like to acknowledge my wife, Samantha. Your love and encouragement has sustained me during the best and worst parts of this journey.
May 2008……………………………………………………….....Centennial High School
2013…………………………………...... B.A. Fine Art, Xavier University of Louisiana
2017 to present……………………………….Graduate Fellow, the Ohio State University
Paulin, Jameel. “Ekphrastic Poetry.” Xavier Review, (April, 2012): 1-5.
Fields of Study
Major Field: Art
Table of Contents
Abstract ...... ii
Dedication ...... iii
Acknowledgments ...... iv
Vita ...... v
List of Figures ...... vii
Chapter 1: Introduction ...... 1
Chapter 2: Congo Square ...... 18
Bibliography ...... 32
List of Figures
Figure 1. Installation view of Congo Square ...... 20
Figure 2. Virtual Reality Headsets ...... 21
Figure 3. Congo Square initial virtual scene ...... 23
Figure 4. Detail view of manilla artifact ...... 24
Chapter 1: Introduction
My primary education in afrofuturism took place across two very different contexts of racial segregation, New Orleans, Louisiana and Madison, Wisconsin. The first school was Uptown, a then mostly black neighborhood in the Greater New Orleans area. Sandwiched between the ‘old money’ aristocratic St. Charles and the commercial
Claiborne Avenue stood the aging black middle class neighborhood where my grandparents lived, across the street from the famed Magnolia housing projects (the birthplace of Cash Money records). My grandfather, Ernest ‘Doc’ Paulin, was the patriarch of a jazz tradition. Born in 1907 he was part of the first generation of musicians who would define the traditional New Orleans jazz sound, combining European military instrumentation with West African rhythms and worship rituals. He would pass this tradition on to my father and uncles.
Prior to Katrina and the resulting gentrification of most black neighborhoods, in
New Orleans jazz, like segregation, was a part of everyday life. It seemed every other day a new jazz group would form out of the remnants of old ones, as any opportunity for social gathering was an opportunity to hire a group for the festivities accompanying funerals, birthdays, Saints games, Catholic holidays, just-because days. Each activity became associated with the sound of New Orleans jazz. These scenes are segregated insofar as the racial divide was clearly defined and taken for granted. It was a given, for example, that white people in Uptown lived on Carondelet and eastward, while Baronne, 1 the next street over, was the beginning of ‘the hood’ wherein my grandparents lived on
Seventh and Liberty. In contrast to the typical view of racial segregation, which posits integration into the dominant as liberation from racialized oppression, the communal perspective of integration perceives the politics of integration as a project that undermined the self-sufficient economy of black neighborhoods. Pre-Katrina, this
Uptown enclave fought to maintain a political economy that supported black musicians entrepreneurs and small business owners, hired for communal events by other black professionals. And with the exception of the people who lived in the projects, the majority of the homes in the 3rd ward region of Uptown were black owned. Living in
New Orleans, I was never conscious of being black. Blackness was normalized since everyone in my family and neighborhood were.
It wasn’t until my family moved to Madison, Wisconsin that I would learn what it truly meant to be black in America, and this move would provide my secondary education in afrofuturism. Suddenly, we moved from a black owned house in a majority black neighborhood, to the University of Wisconsin’s version of public housing. In
Madison, I was one of three black children in my entire grade level, and one of eight in the entire school. The other two children in my grade didn’t provide much solace or companionship, as they were recent immigrants from Ghana and spent most of the day separated in ESL. It was here that my blackness became a sin, as I was seemingly unable to find any space where I was not identified as an unredeemable problem, and treated as such. From the constancy of in-school suspensions and parent-teacher meetings, to the constant threat of violence from various groups of white children, to continuous
2 surveillance by every white business owner who would follow me in their stores, the whiteness of liberal-minded Wisconsinites slowly and effectively colonized every part of my life.
My salvation would come in the form of the Walkman tape player, cable TV, and the Source magazine. The first tape I got to christen my new Walkman was Louis
Armstrong’s Greatest hits. By this time, Manny Fresh, the main record producer for Cash
Money, would bring the sound of New Orleans bounce to the hip-hop scene and usher in the so-called ‘bling era’ that would redefine the genre. My second tape, which I would buy with several months’ worth of allowance, was the radio-safe edited version of
Juvenile’s 400 Degreez. Soon, I would make special trips to the record store or the library and spend hours consoling myself with a mixture of old jazz standards and hip-hop.
Also during this time, my nascent interest in science fiction would be sparked thanks in large part to Star Trek Deep Space Nine, where every week I would watch Cpt.
Benjamin Sisko, a black single father and former jazz musician from New Orleans, raise his son and engage in interstellar battle on behalf of the oppressed Bajorans. Whereas the
New Orleanian context was an immersive embodied experience, the techno-immersion of the tape player and TV was more transient, but just as necessary for my psychological survival. Thus, I ground my discourse on Afrofuturism in this tension between the need to construct an Afrocentric subjectivity and political economy, for the purpose of bodily and psychological survival, over and against the specter of white supremacy. Looking back on this period, I am aware of how I and other people of color used technology as a tool of world building and cultural transmission.
Against the backdrop of afrofuturism, Congo Square is a project of transformations. These transformations entail new worlds, new relations, and new forms of being. It is about how descendants of the African diaspora have transformed the very grounds of being, meaning and relatedness. Through the framework of afrofuturism (as situated in a long history of black liberatory aesthetics), these descendants opened an ontological and epistemological space within which colonized bodies can find identity and belonging over-against the ‘forced context’1 of coloniality. My research, reflections, and resulting works have engaged in a number of questions around afrofuturism. Can afrofuturism be seen as a technology of place making? If so, how does it function? What are its implications and stakes as such? Does it truly have a definitive origin or does it have a longer history?
To address these questions, I have approached the topic from a number of different angles. First, I explore the phenomena of syncretism (broadly defined as the combination of different religions or religious traditions into a new form) in the Atlantic world, focusing on the vodun religion to posit an earlier origin for afrofuturism and to reinterpret the roots of afrofuturism from a historical-theological perspective. I then discuss afrofuturism in the context of Pan-Africanism, specifically the importance of Pan- national politics on the political economy, identity politics, and cultural production of the
African diaspora. Considering the role of modern science and technology, I examine the relationships between race, science, science fiction, and technology: contrasting the dominant narrative with afrofuturism’s approaches race, scientific knowledge production,
1 Burnett, Decolonizing Revelation, 24 2 Thompson, Flash of the Spirit, 163 3 Thompson, 164 4 4 Thompson, 169 and human relations with science fiction and technology. Finally, I consider how descendants of the diaspora transform time and subjectivity through the use of afrofuturism, concluding with a brief chapter on how I give expression to these themes and inquiries in my current project.
Syncretism: Vodun, and the Theological roots of Afrofuturism
Robert Farris Thompson, in his book Flash of the Spirit shows that much of afro- diasporic culture is the legacy and result of a dynamic interplay between various mainland African cultures that were reinterpreted in the wake of modern slavery.
Opening his chapter on the subject, Thompson describes vodun as “a vibrant, sophisticated synthesis of the traditional religions of Dahomey, Yorubaland, and Kongo with an infusion of Roman Catholicism.”2 While most of his book is applicable, to some extent throughout my project, I’m primarily interested in the history of vodun (and its relative forms of voodoo) as an instance of religious syncretism that does more than simply reinterpret Catholic hagiographies and iconographies. Evident by the competing interests of the Holy Roman Empire, the Anglican/Anglo-Saxon Empire, the Calvinist and the Protestant Churches, and the ways in which theological doctrine and religious expression were instrumentalized in the creation of the Atlantic World, theology (as a discourse on and codification of sanctity and holiness) and religiosity (as a social/communal performance of theological doctrine and identity) functioned as technologies of place-making and world-building in this new paradigm. I contend that vodun radically transforms the nature and parameters of the sacred, from conformity to
2 Thompson, Flash of the Spirit, 163 5 white-settler-colonial theology to resistance against it, by centering African philosophies and religious traditions, cosmologies, and sacred texts.
In exploring vodun’s history, symbols, and rituals, Thompson explores its relationship to various nations and their religions in Africa: primarily Kongo, Dahomey and Yorubaland. By tracing the genealogy of vodun’s pantheon and religious rituals,
Thompson shows the influence of Dahomean tradition combined with Yoruba and Kongo spirituality:
Chiefly from Dahomey and western Yorubaland derived the vodun worship of a pantheon of gods and goddesses under one supreme Creator -- deities who manifested themselves by possessing (“mounting”) the bodies of their devotees...Chiefly from Kongo and Angola derived vodun beliefs in the transcendental moral powers of the dead and in the effectiveness of figurated 3 charms for healing and righteous intimidation.
Examining the reinterpretation of St. Patrick, Thompson demonstrates both the fundamental difference between Afrocentric and Eurocentric cosmologies, while also showing how Catholic theology unwittingly expressed “truths [the enslaved Africans] already knew.”4 In this case, the traditional icon of St. Patrick, depicting an elderly man with a long beard, reflected Dahomean and Yoruba traditions of elder veneration; conversely, the stance of the saint stomping on a number of intertwining snakes represents an inversion of Yoruba and Kongo depictions of snakes in traditional ground paintings; whereby rainbow colored snakes, ascending a column, symbolized a positive creation myth. By inserting Afrocentric theology, cosmology, and religiosity into the
West, vodun generated a space for slaves in the new world to experience and embody the
3 Thompson, 164 4 Thompson, 169 6 sacred on their own terms. Situating afrofuturism in a tradition that (more of less) begins with afro-diasporic syncretism, reveals the process by which “Africanisms”5 survived in the Atlantic World as well as introducing the sacred history (the symbols, rituals, and experiences) that afrofuturists would later draw upon; thus preserving a relationship to a collective past as well as establishing an aesthetic legacy that would lead to various forms of cultural expression from blues and jazz to funk and most recently hip-hop.
As authors like Giorgio Agamben have shown how religious life and rituals can function technologically, vis-a-vis the form of life (rules and precepts, etc.), and as theologians such as Paul Tillich define the sacred (a conceptual core of theological formulation and religious expression) as the ground of one’s being, I argue that by reinterpreting the hagiographies, iconographies, and theology of the Catholic church, vodun, as an Afro-centric historical-theological cosmology, created a new ground of being, an ontological and epistemological space within which Afro-diasporic consciousness could exist and thrive; it is an ontological project insofar as theology defines being in relation to a sacred/divine reality, and epistemological insofar as religious tradition and theological reflection represent particular forms of knowledge systems. Moreover, the creation of vodun (along with other Afro-diasporic religions such as Santeria) was a dynamic, historical, and creative process, beyond a mere reaction to, and appropriation of, modern Judeo-Christian symbols.
5 Baraka, Blues People, 25 7
“Afro” futurism: Invention of Africa and Pan-Africanism
As important as religious syncretism was to creating a sense of place and identity to early Afro-diasporic communities, so too was the adoption of a unified African identity. V.Y Mudimbe’s work on the historicity of Africa, as an idea and invention, shows the influence of continental identity in his text Invention of Africa, “It is obvious that since its inception Africanism has been producing its own motives as well as its objects, and fundamentally commenting upon its own being, while systematically promoting a gnosis.”6 While he offers a critique of Western approaches to Africanism and African philosophy, what I find most useful is the production of African objects, being and gnosis. Here, gnosis refers to knowledge beyond a mere recognition of information. On one hand, it can refer to an experiential understanding of a hidden, concealed, or mystical reality; such was the conception of gnosis that drove the development of the Gnostic gospels. On the other hand, it can refer to both the desire to understand and the systematic pursuit of said understanding, as in the form of a diagnostic. My contention is that afrofuturism engages this gnosis on both front, by revealing knowledge that was concealed in the rise of the Atlantic world, while engaging traditional African knowledge systems.
In adhering to and drawing upon an invented Africa, the “afro” in afrofuturism represents the kind of retroactive continuity that Michel Truillot examined in Silencing the Past; however, while that kind of retroactive historicity is used to render certain kinds of black agency “unthinkable,” afrofuturism transforms the invention of Africa into a
6 Mudimbe, Invention of Africa, 11 8 liberatory force that gives meaning and unity to the struggles of peoples across the diaspora. As a theoretical framework that now presupposes a unified transnational identity and ancestry—the artists, thinkers, texts and media that exemplify afrofuturist themes nevertheless draw from a history of shared experiences. As one of many peculiar innovations of modernity, the Afro-diasporic identity that underpins afrofuturism reflects the supranational Pan-identities that Hannah Arendt discusses in Origins of
Moreover, early afrofuturists texts arose out of a political economy incarnated by notable Pan-Africanists, such as DuBois and Garvey, as well as self-sufficient black communities (such as the famed Greenwood, Archer, and Pine neighborhood in Tulsa,
Ok) resulting from slavery, reconstruction and Jim Crow-era segregation measures.
Hakim Adi in his book Pan-Africanism, commented, “Pan-Africanism looks forward to a genuinely united and independent Africa as the basis for the liberation of all Africans, both those on the continent and in the diaspora.”7 In this sense, Pan-Africanism itself represents a kind of proto-afrofuturism both by “looking forward” and by adopting the intellectual project of futurism of liberation. Adi expands on the contours of early movements in Pan-Africanism,
What is evident is that by the eve of the First World War a Pan-African network incorporating new and older figures existed and spanned three continents. There were also clear attempts to organize across Africa and the diaspora and to develop publications that could speak to the problems facing millions of Africans around the world: colonial rule, various forms of economic, social and political oppression and the ubiquitous anti-African 8 Racism.
7 Adi, Pan-Africanism, 3 8 Adi, 25 9
Thus, the political economy of Pan-Africanism functioned as a technology of physical space that linked the descendants of the diaspora across the continents of Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Further, it created and nurtured a network of interests that would influence the thought stream leading to the circulation of afrofuturist themes. This theme of liberation can be seen in many of the works and texts that comprise the emerging canon of afrofuturism: from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, to the Afrocentric music of
Sun Ra and Parliament Funkadelic, to the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, and the speculative fiction of Octavia Butler and Ishmael Reed. It is in this context of political and intellectual liberation that I view afrofuturism as a technology of place making and subjectivity.
Race, Science (Fiction), and Technology
Science and technology, far from the myth of detached objectivity, have long been integral to processes of racialization, exploitation, and dehumanization in the
Atlantic world. Ramya M. Rajagopalan, Alondra Nelson, and Joan Fujimura examine the historical relationship between race, science and technology in the latest Handbook of
Science and Technology Studies, stating, “ ‘scientific racism’ quantified aspects of nonwhite bodies, attempting to demonstrate that they were physiologically and mentally deficient and thus deserving of their lower socioeconomic status. In the process, racial differences were essentialized—that is, cast as natural, innate, and immutable”9
9 Fujimura et. al, Handbook of Science and Technology Studies,349 10
Moreover, as a tool of knowledge production in the modern era, race was used to construct whiteness as a normative measure against which other ethnicities and racialized minorities would be compared. Which begs the question: if the tools, methods, techniques and language of science and technology were forged in the context of white settler-colonialism, what does it mean for afrofuturism to appropriate science and technology? Further, how does centering blackness in the scientific imaginary effect how one produces and experiences scientific knowledge and technological innovation? Here, the works of Clapperton Mavhunga and Ron Eglash readily come to mind, as the former’s work, especially in the Mobile Workshop, makes the chidzimbahwe people, language and experience(s) integral parts of his scientific method, while the latter’s work,
African Fractals, explores various African communities’ approaches to mathematics on their own cultural, historical and philosophical terms.
In the context of science, technology and white settler-colonialism, afrofuturism does more than posit a counter future for black people by appropriating science fiction tropes and imagery. It centers Afrocentric scientific methods, and descendants of the diaspora in the process of scientific knowledge production, granting ownership of both the knowledge produced and the process itself to a community that is traditionally exploited and alienated by institutions of Western science. My point here is that afrofuturism offers not only a critique of the tools, methods and techniques of science and technology in relation to race, so much as it offers a new existence and possibility for science and technology, by centering black and Afro-diasporic experiences, perspectives,
11 and philosophies; thereby transforming the circumstances under which scientific knowledge is produced as well as the purposes for such knowledge and research.
Politics of Time: Past, Present and Future
The issue of time, particularly the way that people of the African diaspora relate to time through afrofuturism, is a pertinent question for a number of reasons. On one hand, the assumed Western perspective of time as linear increasingly seems ideological rather than natural or universal. Accordingly, the advent of Western modernity and its emphasis on positivistic history has raised several intellectual, historical, and ontological issues that afrofuturism and afrofuturist authors bears witness to while fundamentally redefining the parameters of past, present and future by centering Afro-diasporic experiences and philosophies. Ishmael Reed’s concept of necromancy in particular,
“[using] the past to explain the present and to prophesize about the future”, relates strongly to the Adinkra symbol “sankofa”, meaning to “go back to the past and bring forward that which is useful”. This attitude toward the past presents a counter-historical project to both the modern Eurocentric concept of positivism, as well as the temporality of futurism proper: defining linear time as a technological and rational progression away from an invented primitive past, of which non-white peoples and their cultures embody; a point that arises in the work of Johannes Fabian.
Along with embracing a more cyclical concept of time, against the linearity of
Western modernism, there is another way that afrofuturism transforms time; by changing the interpretive subject. Fabian’s text Time and the Other examines the importance of the
12 subject who interprets, and thus defines, time; the kind of work that time does in relation to anthropology, and the way that anthropology proper uses time to construct a problematic Eurocentric power dynamic. Fabian troubles the statement of Karl Popper, “
‘The historicist does not recognize that it is we who select and order the facts of history’”, stating instead that, “the problematic element in this assertion is not the constitution of history (who doubts that it is made, not given?) but the nature of the we.”10
Given the philosophical importance that the we in question and how their time was weaponized in the construction and racialization of anthropology, history, and evolution, the question of the interpretive subject who constructs time is central to the question of human existence and the nature of being in the present. Further, the power that time yields is not in isolation, but is created and used in relation, as Fabian would elaborate:
“Anthropology’s claim to power originated at its roots...Nowhere is this more clearly visible, at least once we look for it, than in the uses of Time anthropology makes when it strives to construct its own object -- the savage, the primitive, the Other.”11 Beyond centering African approaches to cyclical time, afrofuturism represents a way of redressing the weaponization of time by transforming the locus of who defines and interprets time.
Afrofuturism and subjectivity: Habeas Viscus and the Limits of personhood
In Habeas Viscus, Alexander Weheliye offers a critique of Giorgio Agamben and
Michel Foucault’s approaches to humanism, biopolitics and “bare life”. In addressing the absence of race from their works, Weheliye posits the way in which contemporary
10 Fabian, Time and the Other, xxxviii 11 Fabian, 1 13 notions of humanism might differ is the theoretical starting point was a subject who is not in control of one’s body (as seen from the perspective of the slave). What does this shift in perspective, from a liberal bourgeois subject to a “colonized” non-person body, do to theorizing the human? In my opinion, it rejects the discourse on the one hand, while also transforming its locus and its relation to lived/embodied experience(s). The title of the work serves to trouble the liberal conception of habeas corpus, especially the disparity between its legal and existential applications in the context of race and colonialism. He writes,
I use the phrase habeas viscus—“You shall have the flesh”... The flesh, rather than displacing bare life or civil death, excavates the social (after) life of these categories: it represents racializing assemblages of subjection that can never annihilate the lines of flight, freedom dreams, practices of liberation, and 12 possibilities of other worlds.
Weheliye’s work shows the process by which being-ness can be used as a form of technology, especially in the contradiction between the liberal subject and the colonized body. Later, he elaborates on the relation between race, being, and biopolitics, stating:
“habeas viscus is but one modality of imagining the relational ontological totality of the human. Yet in order to consider habeas viscus as an object of knowledge in the service of producing new formations of humanity, we must venture past the perimeters of bare life and biopolitics discourse and the juridical history of habeas corpus.”13 Although
Weheliye’s work focuses primarily on exploring the limits of bare life, biopolitics, and habeas corpus as generative humanist ontological frameworks, I would argue that
12 Weheliye, Habeas Viscus, 11 13 Weheliye, 13 14 afrofuturism provides such a framework. This much can be seen in the fact that Weheliye would turn to afrofuturism for his following text Phonographies, as well as in the kinds of discursive space that it makes possible.
In Phonographies, Weheliye makes use of afrofuturism as a framework not only for a liberating discourse on Afrocentric humanism, but Afrocentric posthumanism as well; dedicating a number of chapters to the use of technologies like the vocoder and autotune in R&B, funk, and soul as examples of a kind of posthuman voice. On this particular subject, Weheliye writes “black humanist discourses emphasize the historicity and mutability of the ‘human’ itself, gesturing toward different, catachrestic, conceptualizations of this category.”14 In this sense, the use of the vocal augmentation in musical production represents a kind of afrofuturist not only in the appropriation of a technological aesthetic, but in questioning the essentialism of the aesthetic experience and human voice as ontologically static and given. Put another way, the spoken word introduction of Parliament-Funkadelic’s song “Sir Nose d’Voidoffunk”, transforms traditional static humanist approaches to music in a number of ways: on the one hand, the voice takes on a posthuman characteristic by using the vocoder, and on the other hand, the speaker (ostensibly an augmented version of George Clinton) represents a persona that the artist has embodied in the context of the album’s narrative. This example, in particular, shows how afrofuturism opens new avenues for expressing and experiencing the flexibility and mutability of being.
14 Weheliye, 26 15
From this text, in a chapter section titled “Afrofuturist Speculative Discourse: A
Critical Method and Liberating Hermeneutic”, David DeIuliis and Jeff Lohr write:
Just as an Afrofuturist digital hermeneutic engages the ways in which peoples of the African diaspora transform and are transformed by a digital world, Afrofuturism as a liberating hermeneutic imagines a world where non-whites are not only free from the White Gaze (Yancy 2008), but also free to navigate the narrative and virtue contention of a postmodern world as human beings with 15 visible bodies and respected voices.
This statement reflects the authors’ larger concern to situate afrofuturism in relation to
Africology and Communicology: as the former provides a discourse on the human experience through the lense of the African and Afro-diasporic subject, while the latter
“examines this relationship between the signs and codes that infuse culture with a shared common experience, and the ways those experiences are discursively expressed both individually and collectively.”16 Understanding afrofuturism as a form of human communication in the context of the africological subject transforms the stakes of the discourse from that of a genre distinction to one with profound importance on the nature of being-in-relation. That this liberative dimension exists alongside the narrative and the virtue attests to the relationship between the cultural and political sphere. In short, as important as Ralph Ellison and his writings are to the field of afrofuturism, so too was the presence of an Afrocentric enclave like Harlem during the time his works were written.
What I have sought to develop, in these preceding sections, is the intellectual context that has influenced my creative visual work. As an artist of color whose work confronts the history and legacy of white supremacy and settler-colonial modernity,
15 DeIuliis/Lohr, Afrofuturist Speculative Discourse, 170 16 DeIuliis/Lohr, 172 16 afrofuturism has provided me with a methodology through which I can understand and transform the politics of my creative practice. The following section will examine the fruits of that transformational methodology.
Chapter 2: Congo Square
Congo Square is the proper title of my creative project, derived from the historically recognized birthplace of jazz in New Orleans, LA. Despite the inherent difficulties of identifying the exact moment that jazz was created, historical consensus points to this area near the French Quarter, now named Armstrong park, where slaves in the French occupied Louisiana territory could congregate, play music, and exchange goods. Historian Ted Widmer, in his article, “Congo Square: the Invention of a
Memory”, describes the area thusly:
The actual locality, just outside the French Quarter, had long been frequented by slaves and free blacks for Sunday recreation and market activity. It was also known as Place Publique and Circus Square, after a popular circus that often set up for business there. In other words, it was marginal in every sense; a kind of cultural no man's land, open to the use of society's disenfranchised, but also 17 frequented by whites who enjoyed visiting this peripheral section of the city
What interests me most in appropriating the title of Congo Square has little to do with the specificity of the origin of jazz music, or, for that matter, the specific historicity of black cultural production; rather, I am interested in what Congo Square represents, metaphorically and mythologically in the black social and cultural imagination, as well as how the colonized subject (in the form of the black other) used this physical and psychological space. “If it is true that, undeniably that Congo Square was one of the most extraordinary musical places in nineteenth century America, we must also acknowledge
17 Widmer, Congo Square, 71 18 that it was a place of the mind as much as it was a real location.”18 This dual existence of
Congo Square, as both “place of mind” and physical locality, the historical Congo Square can be seen as a space of confrontation; a physical and psychological environment that offered the possibility of ontological and epistemological liberation, if only for the short time and always in the material context of settler-colonial America.
Further still, with jazz established as a distinctly modern-American musical form, one that would be increasingly in high demand due to its novelty and exotic allure, Congo
Square can also be seen as the site of a new political economy that, while aesthetically based on the jazz-blues idiom, would financially support black musicians for generations in the form of the famed ‘chitlin’ circuit’.
In order to enter my Congo Square, the viewer must either remove their shoes, or cover them; additionally, the ground of the virtual experience is a quilt-like fabric made using commercially bought American flags, tinted black and written over in chalk. Projected along the far wall is a video recording of five virtual worlds: the titles, symbolism, musical samples and compositional strategies function mimetically, and will be discussed in greater detail below. Two virtual reality (VR) headsets rest on the near wall: one Google Cardboard (for mobile VR), and one Oculus Quest (for a standalone, full immersion VR experience). An oxidized, bronze manilla hangs on the near wall as well, adjacent to the headsets.
18 Widmer, 70 19
Figure 1. Installation view of Congo Square
The work, as a whole, allows for three levels of engagement: watching the video, using one’s personal mobile device, or full immersion by wearing the Oculus headset and using its controllers to navigate. With the mobile option, viewers are prompted to either scan a QR code or follow an algorithmic set of instructions to access an open-source VR website that contains each distinct environment that makes up the Congo Square project.
Figure 2. Virtual reality headsets: Google Cardboard and Oculus Quest
As an audio-visual experience, each of the five virtual environments is accompanied by a distinct audio soundscape, created by sampling existing music from a number of prominent African-American jazz musicians: Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson,
Mary Lou Williams, and Pharoah Sanders, specifically. Three scenes (those titled: Black
Christ, Circle Dance, and The Creator) feature vocal samples in addition to the music.
These samples, and the speakers who lend their voices, express key themes, critical questions, and reflections that have informed the development of this project. For example, the scene titled “Circle Dance”, which pays homage the work of New Orleanian
John T. Scott, features a vocal sample from Dr. Eddie Glaude Jr.’s lecture on his book
Democracy in Black. Toward the end of this sample, Glaude poses a question that serves as the crux of this project: “Coming from the tradition of those who are descendants of slavery, how did those people, under those conditions, imagine tomorrow given the darkness of now?” While the majority of Glaude’s speaking is mixed alongside a looped sample of Herbie Hancock’s Karabali, the music cuts off in order to provide a silence backdrop for Glaude to pose this question, and for the viewer to consider its implication.
For those who opt for the fully immersive experience, putting on the headset transports the viewer to the initial scene where the subject, now disembodied in the virtual realm, stands on a ziggurat-like structure in the midst of digital beings and objects constructed from re-appropriated West African artifacts. A byeri fang model, traditionally produced in the Gabon kingdom and re-appropriated from the Minneapolis Museum’s digital archive, provided the face of the central figure, while its digitally enhanced elongated neck and brass procession-like elements floating around it derive from the
African American inventor Thomas Elkins’ refrigerator design. Several disembodied mask figures float above the central figure, re-appropriated from a Kongo power figure in the British Museum. Several modernist black artists provided the textures for this scene:
Aaron Douglas’ painting Congo forms the dome-like enclosure, Romare Bearden’s works
Baptism and Springway form the “grounds”(the flat plane below the platform and the platforms themselves respectively), while Lois Mailou Jones’ Moon Masque textures the floating figures (a digital homage to the ancestors of the African diaspora).
Figure 3. Congo Square initial virtual scene
The manilla form that hangs on the wall features prominently in several VR scenes, and serves as a motif for what Paul Gilroy termed the black Atlantic:
I want to develop the suggestion that cultural historians could take the Atlantic as one single, complex unit of analysis in their discussions of the modern world and use it to produce an explicit intercultural perspective…The history of the black Atlantic since then, continually crisscrossed by the movements of black people- not only as commodities but engaged in various struggles towards emancipation, autonomy, and citizenship-provides a means to reexamine the problems of nationality, location, identity, and historical memory19
As a form of exchange currency used in the transatlantic slave trade, primarily between
Portuguese and British merchant-traders and the West African nations of Yorubaland and
Benin, I began to use the digital form of the manilla metonymically as a visual reference
19 Gilroy, The Black Atlantic, 16 23 to the African diaspora; emphasizing the cultural and economic contact through this maritime technology and bringing this market relation into the context of the digital.
Figure 4. Detail view of manilla artifact
While mobility of commerce and trade during the early stages of modernity were particularly tied to the sea, my primary concern in this project is how discrete data in the context of surveillance capitalism affects this legacy of cultural contact through global economic exchange, and the ways in which human subjectivity is described and redescribed in that process. Given this brief sketch of Congo Square’s background and 24 themes, the following sections will examine a number of relevant concerns: hip-hop as a methodology vis-à-vis afrofuturism, the audio-visual album format, and finally the titles and meaning of the other four virtual environments that form the Congo Square experience.
Toward a Hip-Hop Method
“Who do you want your work to be in conversation with?” This question was often posed to me my first year at Ohio State and became somewhat of a mantra in the intervening years. Whereas my practice at the time was a pastiche of Dutch Baroque and French Naturalist painting techniques, I realized early on that I desired my work to be in conversation with the likes of Mannie Fresh, J Dilla, and Madlib. Put another way, I wanted my work to be in conversation with hip-hop, but not simply as an aesthetic or an affect; rather, I wanted to center the logic and method of hip-hop production within my studio practice. This led to a new urgent question: “how can I create a fully integrated visual hip-hop method?” I emphasize hip-hop in order to situate my relationship to afrofuturism. Aesthetically and culturally, hip-hop evolves out of the blues-jazz tradition presaged in the Congo Square creation myth.
Through much study and reflection, I settled on three particular elements of hip- hop to form the basis of a new method: digital immersion, appropriation through sampling, and episodic (or asynchronous) temporality. Virtual reality provided a visual analog to the digital immersion of the Walkman (and its various progeny including, now, the iPhone). While the music of Congo Square exhibits a rudimentary approach to sampling and music production, the visual environments are produced by similarly
25 sampling and appropriating digital assets; splicing, mirroring, and reassembling primarily
West African artifacts into expansive virtual worlds.
As a result of questioning the underlying method of my practice, I engaged in a similar critical dialogue regarding the final form of the work. My solution to that question was prefaced in the introduction. If I wanted my work to be in conversation with hip-hop, then it made sense to conceive of my works as “tracks” in the context of an album. This process involved confronting my attachment to the fine art object, in the form of individual paintings and drawings to be displayed in a gallery setting, leading to my ultimate adoption of the album as a conceptual and aesthetic model. In this context,
Congo Square offers the viewer an experience of episodic time that is mediated through thematic testimonials (visualized soundtracks), rather than a linear autobiographical narrative. The content of these thematic tracks is the subject of the following section.
Congo Square and Mimesis: Titles and Meanings
Congo Square is a mimetic work insofar as it creates new meanings using various techniques: titling, appropriation, transformation and juxtaposition. That said the complete album contains five distinct works that coalesce thematically under the main title. While the main work, or ‘title track’, of this experience was described earlier, the following is a list of the remaining individual ‘tracks’, or works, that comprise the Congo
Square visual album: Circle Dance, Black Christ, The Creator, and Sankofa.
Thematically, Circle Dance provides the viewer with the thesis of the album. As previously stated, Circle Dance derives its name from the work of New Orleans based artist John T. Scott, who is notable for explicitly employing what he referred to as “jazz-
26 thinking” in his creative works. “That is, the jazz musicians are always in the ‘now’ while you’re hearing it, but these guys are incredibly aware of where they have been and have an unbelievable anticipation of where they are going. They do all three of these things at the same time. And I refer to this as jazz thinking, or spherical thinking.”20 As both a graduate and patriarch of my alma mater, Xavier University of Louisiana, Scott’s work and philosophy profoundly shaped my approach to art making. With Circle Dance, I employ this spherical thinking by visually appropriating the digital forms of a British capstan dated circa 1835, using an artifact that reinforces transatlantic motif, as well as a
Benin bronze cast dated around the 19th century; bringing the transatlantic past in conversation with the present, through the allusion of Dr. Glaude’s speech, and projecting this dialogue into a futuristic utopia. Sonically, I sampled Herbie Hancock’s Karabali, taken from one of his earliest albums to incorporate hip-hop production techniques, combining the music with a vocal sample from Dr. Eddie Glaude Jr. With Congo Square, generally, and Circle Dance in particular, I seek to contribute to Scott’s legacy by employing a form of “hip-hop thinking” that honors the jazz tradition and the ancestors who have kept that tradition alive.
Black Christ introduces the viewer to the jazz artist-turned-Catholic hymn composer Mary Lou Williams and Avery Brooks, the actor who portrayed Captain
Benjamin Sisko. This title is derived from Williams’ hymn of the same name, Black
Christ of the Andes, written in honor of St. Martin de Porres, the Peruvian Dominican friar who in 1962 became the first person of African descent to be canonized by the
20 Piersol, Interview with John T. Scott, 13 27
Catholic church. Visually, this scene eschews the Adinkra composition strategy evident in Circle Dance, Congo Square, and Sankofa, opting instead for a deconstructed cathedral. Here, the saintly niches are horizontal rather than vertical, protruding toward the viewer rather than away. The altar, which houses the Eucharist and is only accessible to the priest and altar servers, is moved to the center of the space and rendered with a non-specular black hue, in the form of a mirrored digital figure. The voice of Avery
Brooks emanates from this messianic figure, reciting the closing eulogy from Ossie
Davis’ play Purlie Victorious. The entire architecture of the scene is constructed using a digital representation of a Congo power figure, which traditionally represents a mobile and communal symbol of the sacred and embodiment of healing spirits. This scene engages in a similar theological syncretism evident in vodun, exploring the nuances of that transformative act as a negotiation of Africanisms and Western theology.
In The Creator scene, I reprise the manilla artifact along with a self-portrait made using photogrammetry. This method of digital asset creation can be broadly defined as:
“a three-dimensional measurement technique that uses photography to derive the location of common features between multiple photographs in order to three- dimensionally reconstruct a digital model of an object.” 21 Beyond this theoretical depiction, the material conditions of the technique embody Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, as the soon- to-be digitized object must be rendered inert and then photographed from every conceivable angle. In this scenario, the relationship between the supposed creator of the digital model and the object being represented mirrors that of the colonizer and the
21 Bustamante/Romero, Photogrammetry as a Tool to Replace Eroded Decorative Architectural Elements, 17 28 colonized body, a kind of techno-scientific incarnation of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic.
Using 3D models that are generated in this way calls into question the apparatuses of control and surveillance that the technique presupposes, as well as the agency of the objects and subjects within the space. Metaphorically, appropriating digital “assets” created in such a manner represents a reversal of the power relations between colonizer and colonized.
Chronologically, Sankofa was the last work completed for this project; thematically and mimetically, this scene reinforces the spherical time of afrofuturism. In the Adinkra tradition, Sankofa symbolizes the aphorism “ Learn from the past, take what is useful.” Sankofa is also an abstraction of a bird figure, at times represented as a bird facing forwards and backwards. This scene exhibits both aspects of the symbol, as an abstracted bird-like figure, fashioned from a Songye power figure, is suspended in midair. The figure is mirrored across the X-axis effectively making it face both directions. On the ground, I carved the sankofa symbol to present the viewer with a path to walk along. This path is carved into a surface that represents extruded and abstracted landmasses, a visual homage to the transnational nature of both settler-colonial modernity and afrofuturism.
Conclusion: A Discourse of Life in the Face of Death
Like many creative projects, the genesis for Congo Square comes out of my previous work. While I entered Ohio State as a realistic figurative oil painter, addressing police violence against black bodies by producing realistic paintings depicting dashcam and cell phone footage of police brutality, my practice has since shifted from producing
29 discrete fine art objects to constructing afrofuturist worlds and mythologies. The impetus for this shift was motivated by a confrontation of what my practice was actually doing.
Was my practice truly affirming the value of black people by proliferating images of black death? Furthermore, if the entire visual language of my practice was Eurocentric (at the time utilizing and complicating Catholic iconography, along with Dutch Baroque and
French Naturalist aesthetics), was I not reifying white supremacy methodologically? The more I engaged these questions, the more I began to gravitate towards afrofuturist texts and authors, resulting in my adoption of afrofuturism as a generative framework for confronting the oppressive state sanctioned execution of black bodies. Put succinctly, afrofuturism represents a discourse of life; created out of necessity for the physical and psychological survival of a people whose existential death was precondition for
Ironically, the conclusion of this project comes at a time where the specter of death looms over every nation due to the current COVID-19 crisis. Moreover, the virtual nature of this project and process is in high relief due to the imposition of social distancing measures. Further still, to the extent that pro-black ideologies often come out of and exist along anti-capitalist ideologies and movements, the COVID-19 crisis has exposed many of capitalism’s forms of violence, and the vulnerabilities of many of its victims, especially those who have not traditionally understood themselves to be victimized by capitalism’s market fetish. In closing, it appears to me that the world constructed by settler-colonial modernity has brought with it myriad forces of death and destruction that are being exacerbated by this global pandemic. However, rather than
30 contributing to the deconstruction or destruction of modernity, this project has been my attempt to envision a world beyond modernity’s imposed limits, to generate a perspective and practice that enfranchises and recapitulates the histories and cultures of those descended of the African diaspora. It is my sincere hope that more liberated worlds and practices can emerge in the wake of COVID-19.
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