When we first met Nigerian-born and D.C.-based visual artist chukwumaa (his name is pronounced "CHOO-KWOO-mah", all lower-case), he was just about to purchase an engagement ring for his fiancé, artist E. Jane. The two had moved through the shop examining the jewelry cases until E. settled on an oxidized sterling silver ring (its pyramid shape mimicking that of a large diamond) which was just as unassumingly beautiful as she. We learned both are aspiring young artists currently based in Washington, D.C. who will be beginning their residencies at the University of Pennsylvania in Fall 2014.
chukwumaa and E. have known each since high school and have that kind of relationship that's just easy. They encourage one another to do their own thing, and are unabashed to pursue their careers as individuals and artists. In June, E. closed out WAIT, a show she curated at D.C.'s Project 4, focusing on "the new media artist's challenge of capturing viewer attention and focus in a highly saturated, over-stimulating digital landscape."- something we definitely relate to. Constantly pushing each other's limits, chukwumaa has shown his work at Transformer, Artisphere,Corcoran Gallery of Art, among others. We were fortunate enough to catch up with the artists for a short conversation about ideas, pursuing their MFAs in PA, and, more generally speaking, what's next.
Tell us about yourself and your background. We know you were born in Nigeria--how long have you live in the states?
chukwumaa: I was on a plane to the US the first week of my life. I was raised bilingual. My comfort in permanent liminality (a state of in-betweenness) is what makes me so sympathetic and drawn to other folks with a similar perspective on the world. It’s also what makes E. and I work so well: she has a background that could sound like a patchwork of so many different lives, yet they are all hers, informing her movement through life. Her mother’s from a Southeast DC project and her father’s from Northeast DC and she somehow ended up in a private college in New York on the Upper East Side. We've internalized the boundaries that supposedly divide the elements of our backgrounds. And, honestly, we aren't alone.
You work primarily in visual art--performance, sculpture, and sound. How did you decide on this as your primary form of expression?
chukwumaa: I arrived here through a sort of winding path. At the same time, anyone that knew me from my younger years has never been surprised to find me on this path. I spent sixth grade to the early part of college pursuing Engineering. Yet I was also a big drama kid, ran an indie fashion label, and pulled a lot of stupid skate punk pranks. I like to think that I could have ended up doing anything that I cared enough about to commit to honestly. Creating things has always been a constant. My current practice is my honest attempt to synthesize the many disciplines and modes of creating that have always spoken to me.
Your work explores the concept of "belonging," centering on social navigation, trickster myths and the surreal. Tell us more about this.
chukwumaa: I’m really interested in how the world deals with liminal characters and how liminal characters deal with the world. I think there is something about joinery, about how things fit together and what boundaries distinguish one thing/person/group/idea from the next. It’s what fascinates me about sculpture. There’s something to it all that arrests me, something that animates my thoughts and interest. I think it has to do with my own life experiences navigating so many spheres of culture, language, and experience that don’t necessarily make sense together.
In human cultures, you have so many angles and perspectives on those who don’t fit neatly into a specific bound. There are those who live it like folks of ethnically or culturally mixed background, or those born a gender they don’t identify with; and there are world myths that implicate it like the stories of Br’er Rabbit, Anansi, Eris, Loki or Papa Legba. Those myths give a symbolic portrait of how liminal people fit into the world: they represent shifts of paradigms, the meeting of worlds and loosening of boundaries. The folks at the peripheries of groups are many times those very groups’ glue.
How did you and E. Jane meet, and come together as artists?
chukwumaa: We actually met in high school, in Drama class, specifically. We were both in our school’s Science and Technology Program. E. was in the Computer Science track; I was in the Engineering track.
E.: I liked chukwumaa’s jacket and told him so.
E., you just closed out WAIT, a show you curated at Project 4, focusing on "the new media artist's challenge of capturing viewer attention and focus in a highly saturated, over-stimulating digital landscape." You posed the question, "How do we get an audience to wait and enter the work?" Did you come to any conclusions?
E: The question I initially posed was a philosophical one. Mark Jenkins, from the Washington Post, claimed that my request was reasonable, but “difficult to achieve with video and audio pieces that are themselves in constant flux." That tells me that some people believe we need stillness to concentrate, while others, myself included, would argue that my generation is used to over-stimulation. The show was set up so that there was hyper-stimulation. It was important to me that the media constantly be activated; yet some pieces still cycled to provide viewers a moment of visual rest.
My question wasn't one I expected to find an answer to, but rather a reflection on the works and their installations. The artists all seemed to deal with that question in someway through their work. Tiona McClodden created an entire universe surrounding her film Be Alarmed: The Black Americana Epic (2014). For her installation, she showed film props, posters, a trailer, and a scene that are a part of a much larger body of work. chukwumaa installed a black cloud with hanging sound helmets in Nimbus With You (2014) that covered the viewer’s face. Ambient sounds played from the helmets, canceling out the noises of the gallery. These are ways to get the audience to wait, because you’re taking them away from their immediate environment.
The question also acted as something that the audience could think about as they viewed the exhibit. I wanted viewers to wonder, “well, what would it take to get me to sit still, and is that even possible?” I find it hard myself, and often force myself to watch an entire video piece. Today, for example, I went to the National Museum of Women in the Arts and saw a piece by Mwangi Hutter, called Neger Don't Call Me (2000). The entire piece was less than 12 minutes long, but it was still a test of will to sit through the entire thing. Not because I wasn't engaged or didn't enjoy the work, but because my brain is over-stimulated.
E., you work as an interdisciplinary artist and, in your words, experiment with multi-media "to increase the perceptibility of mental illness and the psyche." Can you expand more on this?
E: Basically I’m trying to create works that display different representations of reality. More specifically, I want to portray the realities experienced by a person with mental illness, and even more specifically, the reality of those with Bipolar Disorder I. Once I was diagnosed as Bipolar I, following a bit of a hectic period (also known as psychotic break), I realized how hard it was to describe to people what it meant. It’s complicated explaining how someone experiences the world when delusional, and how they still interact with and perceive the world within the ebbs and flows of the disorder. I also grew interested with false signifiers of normalcy within our society. I started to address the issue on my blog and found that others with various types of mental illness responded to my work because of their own difficulties and angst surrounding their reality within the world. Collective reality, in my perspective, is a falsehood, but it’s hard to articulate how.
Most of my work is self-portraiture. Through my photographs, I try to dismantle the ideas of normalcy or ask what is normal, by recreating or capturing different moods or fantasies I have. These photographs fascinate me because I’m wondering if you can see the difference between a bipolar person and a regular person, and if there is any difference to see at all.
In my video and sound pieces, I record the world, create scenarios within it, and then portray it through the lens of mental illness. For example, in Like Icarus, Undone (2014), you hear through the ears of the main character, but see through the eyes of the second character. I think it’s important that I stress that all of my work is experimentation. I’m still not sure whether people can ever really understand alternate realities, or if what I do actually shows that. It’s a goal, another philosophical goal, because it begs the question, “Is mental illness perceptible?”
What's next for you and E.?
chukwumaa: We’re both finishing up residencies at the Strathmore Center for the Arts and Transformer, respectively. I’m going to be showing new work in the final exhibition for The Strathmore FineAIR program. The opening is August 7th. E’s culminating work will be showing at CODA, a group exhibition for her residency. The show is the final movement in FERMATA, a major sound art show at Artisphere in Rosslyn. The opening is July 24th.
E: We’re also moving to Philadelphia this summer. We’re both starting our graduate studies for the MFA program at the University of Pennsylvania this fall.
You've created something under the SCRAAATCH moniker to share exclusively with us. What is SCRAAATCH?
SCRAAATCH (always all-caps) is a collaborative umbrella for the projects of E. Jane and chukwumaa. Each piece is numbered and can take the form of a recording, live performance or any other media.
Photos by Emma McAlary; all black & white images are artists' own.