A Moment with Afrofuturism: Jefferson Pinder, Lazarus

from artgallery.yale.edu

Jefferson Pinder is a Chicago-based multimedia and performance artist. His work explores the racial history of the United States by incorporating elements of Afrofuturism and experimental film. He is a recipient of the 2017 John S. Guggenheim Fellowship. The Yale University Art Gallery is currently exhibiting his 2009 short film, Lazarus. This exhibition will be open through February 18th. He will be speaking at the Yale University Art Gallery February 8th at 5:30 pm.

Playing adjacent to the ongoing construction in the YUAG is a surreal 3-minute short film exploring community and motion. The rhythmic beat of a drum, an endless loop, and a brief moment of dazed reflection — Jefferson Pinder’s film Lazarus is a meditation. The sole work of art on the fourth floor, Lazarus takes the viewer out of their day, transporting us to a colorful and ambiguous landscape. The film blurs the line between still image and video, utilizing music — not dialogue — to move its minimal plot forward. The viewer watches as a small crowd of individuals labor to push an antique Volvo through an unnamed Midwestern town. The emotionless man at the wheel stares ahead indefinitely as the newfound community pushes endlessly.

This minimalist experience hints at elements of Afrofuturism — an artistic movement characterized by its incorporation of black history and culture into futuristic images and science-fiction: in popular culture, Black Panther is an archetypal example. Although, as Elizabeth Reich writes for the Los Angeles Review of Books, “Afrofuturism is not a new phenomenon, but arguably as old as black American culture itself. Speculative fictions of slaves traveling home and the technology of drums sounding out stories of freedom are its early manifestations.” Lazarus exists somewhere between the sleek blockbuster futurism of Black Panther and the earliest expressions of this movement. From an initial viewing of Lazarus, one can identify various key visual cues: bodies at work, the importance of fashion, and depictions of the urban environment — subtle expressions of futurism. In Lazarus, we see a larger artistic movement, and a response to one dimensional representations of race in the United States.

Lazarus is one of many in Pinder’s Inertia Cycle, a series of films that explore physical acts to decode the experiences of oppressed groups. Composed of traditional African imagery, song, and technological elements, the complex language that Pinder has developed spans across video art, installations made of neon, glitter, and performance. Equally layered, his plastic works play off of traditional visual tropes in fine art. Onyx Odyssey, a collection of fine arts objects, uses minimal color and neon lights, juxtaposed by traditional African masks and earthen materials to present a black vision for the future. The visual elements of these static works align more closely with Afrofuturistic elements in hip-hop culture — like the album art of Childish Gambino’s 2016 album Awaken, My Love! In a mystical space journey titled Afro-Cosmonaut/Alien, Pinder employs whiteface and a traditional Japanese dancing ritual to create a beautiful and unsettling experience. Pinder’s films often use music as a cultural critique, exploring contemporary pop and traditional African music, to demonstrate a continuation of these cultural nuances.

The artist describes the physical effect of his video work as “an abstract metaphor for social struggle.” In Lazarus, there is tension in the agency of the individuals. Lazarus appears to depict voluntary participation in pushing oneself to exhaustion, and the societal implications of the black body at work are deeply embedded into this film. While some works by Pinder are much more explicit about this connection, Lazarus explores this tension by introducing a community. “My work is about blackness, and through this, I hope that it will be about humanity as well…we don’t live in a post racial society. We can’t separate race from our work,” says Pinder in an interview. The labor of the black body in Lazarus as voluntary and communal comes into conflict with the legacy of slavery and forced servitude in the United States. The loop of Lazarus invokes a Sisyphean commentary on endurance and the nature of oppression.

Playing with elements of science fiction, mythology, and experimental filmmaking techniques, Pinder’s reflections on black identity place his work among contemporaries like Kehinde Wiley, ART ’01, Rashid Johnson, and Titus Kaphar, ART ’06. His minimal Afrofuturism creates a direct dialogue with the stimulating works of these painters, but also with musicians like Frank Ocean and Beyoncé. Lazarus, presented as a loop in the YUAG is reminiscent of Endless, Ocean’s 2016 visual album. Although these artists are very different, their minimal approach relies on repetition and cycles to create a surreal environment through which they can explore self-identity. Endless documents the meticulous construction of a spiral staircase. While Ocean’s work is typically associated with pop music and culture, Pinder’s intellectual and mixed media also approaches similar themes of identity and time. Pinder and Ocean confront our notions of time by stretching and pulling it. This experimentation works on various levels by examining the creative process or the pace of social progress in a racially divided nation. Afrofuturism, with its science-fiction and musical roots is deeply connected to the experience of time. The looping in the small silent room makes it unclear how much time has passed. Similarly, the curator of Pinder’s exhibition writes, “The subjects in his videos do not speak, but their actions resonate with the frustrations of everyday life.” Perhaps this video is a break from everyday experiences to empathize with those of other individuals.

Pinder’s work is nostalgic, surreal, black, and nuanced. Lazarus, as an experience in the YUAG is ephemeral; and the work feels incomplete without deeper investigation into the relevance of Afrofuturism and Pinder’s other works. It does not necessarily depend on its sister works, but like all good art, it is enriched by the dialogue it creates among other works and artists. Something is lost in the isolation of this film but the brief experience in the gallery is powerful. Lazarus’ colorful and musical examination of community resonates deeply with other works on the third floor — from El Anatsui to Barkley Hendricks there are endless connections to be drawn between works of cultural criticism or beautiful celebrations of blackness. This exhibit can be the jumping off point for participation in a powerful artistic movement. Watch Lazarus. The ambiguities and the discourse surrounding Afrofuturism are fascinating and diverse. From a blockbuster film, to a music video, or a small group of individuals animating a rusted vehicle, you might begin to see the hints of Afrofuturism in your day to day life.