Ulysses Jenkins: Notions of Freedom
Los Angeles-based artist Ulysses Jenkins has been working in performance, video, and multi-media for five decades, and his art speaks with an urgency that is powerfully relevant today. Embracing the use of technology as a tool to foster communication and community building, Jenkins advocates taking control of the media to create and convey alternative representations and histories of the African American experience. Adopting the role of a self-termed “video griot,” Jenkins draws upon the African oral tradition of storytelling in videos that bring together music, archival and mass media footage, recorded imagery, performance and poetic recitation.
After beginning his artistic career as a muralist, Jenkins founded the pioneering media collective Video Venice News in the early 1970s. The collective is perhaps best known for Remnants of the Watts Festival (1972-73), a video verite recording – what Jenkins describes as a “documentary of a time and a place” – of the now-legendary festivals, which celebrated black culture and community. Jenkin’s involvement with community-based art practices extended to teaching; from 1970 to ‘72 he taught art to youth through the Los Angeles County Probation Department, and in 1989 taught video in a gang-intervention program in San Francisco.
Collaboration has been central to Jenkins’s artistic practice. An active participant in the California art scene since the 1960s, he collaborated on politically engaged performances, ritual actions and technological experiments with artists such as Kerry James Marshall, Studio Z (with David Hammons, Senga Nengudi, and Maren Hassinger), Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz, among many others, and performed music and spoken-word poetry with his conceptual multi-media group, The Othervisions Art Band.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, Jenkins was an innovator in exploring the creative potential of emergent, pre-Internet networked technologies. Devising live “videophone” performances for what he termed “contemporary ritual contexts,” Jenkins embraced audience participation and interactive exchange as a means of effecting social change.
Jenkins has often returned to the theme of the “doggerel” in his work. Defined as “irregular rhythm or measure” in verse, doggerel becomes for Jenkins a charged metaphor as well as an artistic strategy. Speaking of the term in a 2008 interview, he states, “…That’s what it’s like to be a black person in society. Sometimes things are irregular, and you can’t figure out what’s happening.’ So I said, ‘That’s what I’m going to do.’ There’s Dada and there’s surrealism, and I’m going to create Doggerealism, and from that time on, there have always been doggerel moments, if you will, in my work.”
This program presents a selection from Jenkins’s important but under-recognized body of video work.