folio arts

Complicated POETRY

Jibade-Khalil Huffman makes works within the realm of word play and word power

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Artist Jibade-Khalil Huffman was born in Detroit, went to Bard (BA), Brown (MFA, Literary Arts), and USC (MFA, Studio Art), and was a resident at The Studio Museum in Harlem (2016). He’s published three books of poetry—19 Names for Our Band (2008), James Brown is Dead (’11) and Sleeper Hold (’14)—he lives in New York City, and is now showing his art at St. Augustine’s Crisp-Ellert Museum; he’s in residence there as well.

Folio Weekly was able to find a moment to chat with the very busy artist in advance of his show, A Tondo for Rajon Rondo. In it, Huffman takes the tondo form (typically a circular painting) and uses it symbolically in a tribute to New Orleans Pelicans player Rajon Rondo.
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Folio Weekly: Why Rajon Rondo?
Jibade-Khalil Huffman: Rajon Rondo for me typifies a kind of mercurialness that is barely tolerated or outright not allowed in polite society. Rondo is, by all reports, one of the headiest players to ever play the game, which has led to him often disagreeing with coaches, management and fellow players. Instead of further problematizing this, I wanted to make a kind of tribute to complicated blackness, to celebrate this, if that makes sense, even though Rondo does not actually appear in the show.

In the past, you’ve said, “the work happens in the space during install” ... while you’re in St. Augustine, what do you think you’ll focus on and how do you imagine you’ll operate?
In St. Augustine, I am presenting a new video, a new installation and a bunch of recent and new inkjet paintings, some of which make use of projection as well. So, really, it is the installation/sculptural work, which may get cut in favor of a recent video that relates to this idea. I can only plan so much. And because I work in so many different ways, I’m usually behind anyway. But working out ideas in the space, especially projections specific to a particular architecture, make way more sense for me.

Your work navigates and takes elements and ideas from sculpture, photography and poetry—but you’ve said you’re most interested in “doing the thing [idea] in the form that best suits it.” How do you determine the “best form” and do you think that this adds a bit of risk to the work; the making and displaying of it?
I figure out the best form through a process of research. I spend a lot of time looking up related videos on YouTube, articles; make lots of sketches and weird notes to myself. And then at a certain point, it all just starts coming together, in relation to the other works surrounding a particular piece. It’s about trusting the work instead of just your ego and whatever ideas you may have about expertise.

In an essay for the Poetry Society of America, you wrote “a certain kind of work is destroying the art world.” Can you expound on this?
At the time, coming up on 10 years ago, I was mostly in the poetry scene in New York but worked to pay the bills as an art installer. I don’t think any one kind of work is destroying the art world or anything so dramatic. But I’m continually disappointed by the vulgarity of it all, the winner-take-all-mentality, the lack of real diversity, the almost-blind emphasis on painting and outright hostility toward anything that doesn’t satisfy the art market or is challenging in a complicated (as opposed to really simple and obvious) way: the complicatedness of blackness itself versus the typical MLK Black History month overcoming struggle, oppr0ession, pornography.

You’ve also talked about “objecthood” as it relates to language and leveling hierarchy. Tell me how you tackle these ideas in your work.
I have an odd relationship with objects, mostly owing to my impatience. Video (of the appropriated variety, where you’re not going through all the motions of a production but instead working from an archive) and writing are so much more immediate than photography or the other mode of video that I work in (which entails casting and working with performers, rehearsals, etc.). Ultimately, I’m interested in the text in the painting being as important as the fact that it’s a painting. Or not making a painting at all and making a performance instead because that better suits the idea.

Finally, you address making work as a black man in America ... and I found myself thinking about this especially in relationship to the two works: White People Explain John Baldessari to Me, (’17) and Black People Explain the Facts of Life to Me (’17). Both seem to start out—at first read—with a dose of pointed humor, but upon subsequent/lingering consideration, reveal themselves to be painful truths: Baldessari in the assumption of a “needed” explanation on the part of the lecturer; Facts as they relate to navigating the world as a person of color. Can you discuss the impetus for these works, and how you chose their central ideas?
Yikes. Yeah, that humor/painful truth dichotomy is at the heart of my work but also—and I’m being super-reductive here—the heart of the experience for lots of people of color. The Baldessari piece, which of course riffs on Rebecca Solnit’s writing on man-splaining, comes from the recurring annoyance of having, in most cases, white curators, critics and fellow artists ascribe my ideas to a Eurocentric model of knowledge or beauty. It is about the anxiety of influence, but the influence you are told repeatedly matters more than your own actual references.

Though both pieces make use of appropriated sources (a few magazine ads in the case of the Baldessari piece; a picture of Kim Fields on the cover of Jet Magazine for the Facts of Life piece), they are among the most personal works I’ve ever made in their attempt to articulate the rage, confusion and humor that is one version, my version, of navigating a world that’s still so intent on upholding white supremacy and patriarchy. The fact that this is something I feel compelled to deal with in the work is both great and maddening, once you start to think of the many artists in the mainstream who don’t have to really deal with these considerations, though often feel compelled to tell us how little identity matters, again, in the face of this Eurocentric model of everything and who get annoyed that they even have to think about these things and other forms of protest. But it’s like what someone said, if you’re tired of hearing about it, about oppression, then how tired do you think I am of living it and having to explain it in interviews or otherwise?

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