Ulysses Jenkins: Without Your Interpretation is the first major retrospective on the work of groundbreaking video/performance artist Ulysses Jenkins, on view at ICA this fall, September 17–December 30, 2021. The exhibition is co-curated by Meg Onli, ICA Andrea B. Laporte Associate Curator and Erin Christovale, Associate Curator, Hammer Museum at UCLA, where the exhibition will travel this winter, February 6–May 15, 2022.
A pivotal influence on contemporary art for over fifty years, Ulysses Jenkins (born 1946 Los Angeles, lives Los Angeles) has produced video and media work that conjures vibrant expressions of how image, sound, and cultural iconography inform representation. Using archival footage, photographs, image processing and elegiac soundtracks Jenkins pulls together various strands of thought to interrogate questions of race and gender as they relate to ritual, history, and the power of the state.
Beginning as a painter and muralist, Jenkins was introduced to video just as the first consumer cameras were becoming available. He quickly seized upon the television technology as a means to broadcast alternative and critical depictions of multiculturalism—citing the catalyst of Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) and its call to Black filmmakers to control their subject-hood by controlling the media depicting them. Adopting the role of a “video griot,” Jenkins is inspired by the oral traditions in videos that are often structured around music and poetic recitation, as well as dynamic performances.
From his work with Video Venice News, a Los Angeles media collective he founded in the early 1970s, to his involvement with the artist group Studio Z (alongside David Hammons, Senga Nengudi, and Maren Hassinger), to his individual video and performance works with Othervisions Studio, Jenkins explicitly comments on how white supremacy is embedded in popular culture and its effects on subjectivity. Jenkins studied under Charles White, Gene Youngblood, Chris Burden, and Betye Saar, and has collaborated with many artists in his work, among them Kerry James Marshall, who performed in Two-Zone Transfer (1979); Hammons, who was the subject of King David (1978); and Nengudi and Hassinger, both of whom appeared in Jenkins’s video Dream City (1981), among other works.
Requiring three years of intensive research by the curators—including studio visits, the digitization of a sprawling archive, and conversations with Jenkins and his collaborators—the exhibition, which has been organized closely with the artist, encompasses a broad range of over twenty of Jenkins’s videos, and more than sixty works that showcase his collaborations, mural paintings, photography, and performances, highlighting the scope of the artist’s practice.
Among the many video works included in the exhibition is Mass of Images (1978), an innovative video art piece considered one of the first works in the genre by a Black artist. In it, Jenkins critiques the media’s role in perpetuating racist and harmful images of Black people in the U.S. Like other works in the exhibition, it is grounded in the issues at the heart of contemporary conversations about inequality and environmental devastation amplified by unchecked capitalism, governmental oppression, and systemic racism’s impact on Black cultural production.
Technology’s role in building community is a primary concern across Jenkins’s work. Just as the artist has used nascent technology to address pressing issues of our time, the exhibition uses current technology to capture the artist’s original intent to foster international collaboration, increase access to shared experiences, and provide a platform for marginalized voices.
Many emerging Black video artists who came of age in the 1990s and early-2000s, cite Jenkins as a major influence in their work. Jenkins’s groundbreaking and prescient work is only now being revisited by scholars, curators, and other artists. The political and social commentary present in Jenkins’s work make it particularly relevant in today’s context, such as his interrogations of Black stereotypes in the American entertainment industry in Mass of Images (1978) and Two-Zone Transfer (1979), and calls to protect the rights of indigenous groups and champion environmental conservation in Bay Window (1991).
Major support for Ulysses Jenkins: Without Your Interpretation has been provided by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.