Multi-media artist Ariel Jackson’s video installation, “Focus,” at the Studio Museum in Harlem embraces the effects of trauma within the black community and how trauma has informed her relationship to the blues. The “afro-pessimism” that results from trauma establishes a psychological baseline which propels Jackson’s passion for resolving this state of mind and simultaneously motivates her to be, in her own words, a “world builder.”
Jackson fearlessly takes on these big ideas like most of us take a sip from a glass of water. All comes crystal clear in her triad of videos at the Studio Museum lobby entitled, “Focus.” The three short videos shown in a loop, deconstruct the blues as a state of mind, a complex myriad of emotions in which Jackson associates with her culture and her people.
Artist Ariel Jackson at The Studio Museum in Harlem. Photographs contributed by the author
By developing the fictional character, “Confuserella”, Jackson creates a vocabulary to inhabit her own afro-pessimism, in turn, addressing the topic of race and the black body as a signifier for property and ownership as portrayed largely in mainstream media. Jackson contends that the profound negative subversive effects of mainstream media regarding blackness makes her goal of becoming a “world builder” all the more challenging.
In the first video, “The Origin of the Blues”, originally presented at the “Afro-Futurism” conference at the New School in May 2015, the fictional character of Confuserella, performed by Jackson, critically confronts the blues, stating that she has to go back and forth from a fictional place called “Panfrika” where history melds into the present to escape the afro-pessimism that the blues creates within an otherwise utopian existence. By rejecting the blues, Confuserella states that she can, “grow with so many colors and hardly any blues.”
Confuserella further contends that she needs to, “put down the blues once and for all and return the gift of so many colors to her family.” The video ends with a black school teacher asking a black child in a classroom if he can wait for freedom and the child simply responds, by saying, “no.” Similarly, Confuserella is committed to this steadfast and unmovable conviction for undeniable freedom.
The second video, “What Are the Blues?”, is a one-minute slide show starting with images of Hurricane Katrina followed by numerous history based photographs sketched over by Confuserella, of black people in various capacities, such as slaves, factory workers, sharecroppers, and teachers. An image of a blues band is inserted approximately halfway through the slideshow, serving as an ambiguous middle ground within the vast spectrum of black history. In order to embellish this motif, Confuserella’s drawing style includes removing facial and bodily features in the photographic images, most notably the eyes. This stylistic impulse suggests the negation, manipulation, and neutralization of the black body, while simultaneously linking all the images together in a common, haunting aesthetic theme.
The third video, “Blue Note: Feelings 01”, is a fifteen-second loop with a recurring lyric, “I feel the blues a comin”, which foreshadows possibly more daunting events to come. By focusing on trauma in relation to the blues, Jackson aims to lift up the constraints often portrayed by the blues, which she contends, has been set into motion by the chronic pessimism that exists within the black community and is further exacerbated by mainstream media.
Jackson references Hurricane Katrina, which devastated her hometown city of New Orleans, to highlight this point. The New Orleans black community was falsely characterized by the media during Katrina as predominantly looters and opportunistic thieves. Conversely, insufficient coverage was given to the struggles poor black communities encountered during Katrina, including living in squalid conditions after losing homes, long separations from family members, and being subjected to unjust treatment by the New Orleans police.
Jackson takes these real life observations and integrates them into her reflections and conflicted relationship to the blues. The question Jackson seems to keep asking is, “Where do we go from here?” and, “What can life be like after the blues?”
In my conversation with Jackson, she mentioned Ethal Water’s 1929 ballad, “Am I Blue?” as an example of how early twentieth century media portrays “afro-pessimism” as a sentimental condition. To counter this depiction, Jackson invokes a “Confuserella” like response to, “Am I Blue?” by declaring, “Just be yourself!”
In addition, Jackson referred to mercurial hip-hop storyteller, Kendrick Lamar, as an example of how emerging black artists can convey stories that are undoubtedly blues-like, yet decidedly focused on the present and the future, and not simply steeped in the afro-pessimism of the past.
Lamar’s recent single, “Sing for Me, I am Dying of Thirst” is an elegant and subversively contemporary depiction of blackness as it relates to a young man struggling to take control of his life in order to achieve his dreams. Lamar’s angst and frustration pervade in the spirit of the blues, yet his introspective inquiry confronts both his personal struggle to reach his potential in a contemporary world that arguably offers more opportunities for black people in America, while at the same time, continues to alienate and be unjust towards the black community.
Both Jackson/Confuserella and Lamar are able to combine fantasy and dreams with a stark realism to construct a contemporary “position.” This aesthetic barometer may very well portray a new black aesthetic that continues to build on its blues inspired past, and at the same time, inspire artists of many colors to become the change agents and “world-builders” that Jackson foresees.