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Bearing Witness: Masud Olufani at MOCA GA

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Installation view of “Poetics of the Disembodied” with Grounded in the foreground, and Constellation; The Listeners/Witnesses of the Trade; and Freedom’s Price in the background (l to r).

Masud Olufani has a lot to say about life, love and loss as he chronicles the history of blacks in America. In his first major solo show since receiving his MFA from SCAD in 2012, Olufani takes us on a spiritual journey through time that begins over 265 years ago on the barrier islands of Georgia, moves through slavery and the Civil Rights movement, and ends with the lives of black males in the new millennium. Each work in his exhibition “Poetics of the Disembodied” is an allegory that speaks eloquently to those moments in time that have brought us to our current circumstance regarding race, cultural identity, and the human condition.

Detail of Listeners/Witnesses to the Trade, 2016. Mixed media installation.
Detail of The Listeners/Witnesses to the Trade, 2016. Mixed media installation.

Olufani’s story begins with an extremely small and perhaps ill-placed installation in the far corner of the gallery. Titled The Listeners/Witnesses of the Trade (2016), the work features open clam shells, each housing a cast of a black ear, placed on a bed of sand collected from Ossabaw Island, and a video projection of waves gently crashing on the beach. While the scale and placement of the installation are challenging (perhaps the artist’s attempt to create intimacy), the installation is lyrical and moving. Over the sound of the waves, a child can be heard chanting an Islamic prayer. Olufani calls attention to the fact that the very first Muslims in America were of African descent. Additionally, it is estimated that up to 30 percent of all slaves brought to America were Muslim, an interesting fact considering current discussions in the U.S. concerning Muslims and immigration.

Georgia Museum of Art

The artist then transports us from the melodious sounds of waves on the beaches of the barrier islands of Georgia to the staccato rhythms of its capital. Overheard throughout the gallery are the moans, squeals and clatter of Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) trains along with a conductor’s voice announcing a train’s arrival at the Five Points station. It is the soundtrack of Blocked (2016), an 18-minute montage of videos taken in and around the downtown Atlanta station. Superimposed on these clips are ghosted images of the slave auction house that stood on that same spot 150 years ago. In Blocked, Olufani draws attention to the fact that slaves were bought and sold in the exact location of the Five Points MARTA station, the hub of the city’s public transportation system. It is even more uncanny given that in the early ’80s, the acronym MARTA was jokingly translated as “Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta.”

Installation view of "Poetics of the Disembodied" with Grounded, 2015 (foreground).
Installation view of “Poetics of the Disembodied” with Grounded in the foreground, and Writer’s Block; Tight Packers: A Depleted Harvest; Root/Anchor After Gober; A Sentiment; and Blocked in the background (l to r).

Olufani continues to engage us in a dialogue regarding the econometrics of slavery with Grounded (2016). On the floor in the middle of the gallery, a small, wooden plane appears ready to take off but is weighed down with a disproportionately long canvas bag stuffed with cotton attached to its tail fin. The work is reminiscent of the aerial advertising banners that converted crop duster planes tow above beaches and stadiums. In this case, however, the plane is grounded by history and serves as a provocative reminder of slavery’s economic impact on today’s society. Olufani references Isabel Wilkerson’s book The Warmth of Other Suns, in which she states that slavery has caused “a wealth deficit between the races that would require a miracle windfall or near asceticism on the part of colored families if they were to have any chance of catching up or amassing anything of value.” In many ways, this assemblage speaks to one of the most well-known exchanges of the Civil Rights Movement, the 1965 debate between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley held at Cambridge University in England, titled “Has the American Dream been Achieved at the Expense of the American Negro?”

As Olufani ferries us into the early ’60s, he continues to challenge us to remain both analytical and emotional. The largest work in the show, Freedom’s Price, is an installation spanning nearly 22 feet. On the wall are 11 black-and-white mug shots, each coated in resin, of African American and white Freedom Riders who were arrested in Mississippi in 1961. Their names, hometowns, occupations, and motivations are all unknown. At the center of the arrangement just below these portraits is a white partition. On the left side is a water fountain. On the right side is a spigot. A small sign above the partition directs “whites” to the fountain and “colored” to the spigot. On the floor underneath each portrait is a small pile of stones.

Freedom's Price
Freedom’s Price, 2016. Mixed media installation.

Stationed in front of the portraits are 11 tall black poles equipped with bone white ceramic sling shots. With each slingshot loaded and aimed at a Freedom Rider, the effect is that of a firing squad. Olufani creates tension for the viewer who has to determine whether these 11 were martyrs, murdered for their activism, or simply jailed for protesting.

The F Word at Hunter Museum

At an opening night performance (which will be reenacted during his artist talk this Thursday, August 4, at 6:30pm), Olufani took aim, sequentially striking the Freedom Riders with stones fired from the slingshots. He then placed finger kisses upon the foreheads of the Freedom Riders and ended with a prayer. The gesture was ambiguous, leaving the viewer to struggle with the meaning of it all.

In the installation Tight Packers: A Depleted Harvest (2015-16), Olufani uses a term coined in the early 1700s that refers to slave traders who believed that it was more profitable to tightly pack slaves into a ship. For them, cramming more slaves aboard a ship compensated for the slaves’ higher death rate due to disease and starvation during the transatlantic journey. In this work, Olufani compares the stuffing of the slave ships to the packing of young African American males into prisons.

Tight Packers: A Depleted Harvest (2015-2016)
Tight Packers: A Depleted Harvest, 2015-16. Mixed media installation.

As part of the installation, Olufani drew 100 small portraits of African American males and placed them in sardine cans arranged in five rows on the wall. The only identification provided is an inmate ID number on each peeled-back lid. At the center of the configuration is a photograph of a college graduation ceremony. However, this is not an ordinary graduation scene. Some graduates have been cut out of the photograph. All those who remain are Caucasian. The work speaks to the opportunity cost of imprisonment as well as the individual and societal loss that is an untenable consequence of an inherently racist prison system.

Some may find Olufani’s work emotionally and intellectually overwhelming, but the transatlantic slave trade, the resulting economic disparities, and the loss of human potential and human life are enormously topical. “Poetics of the Disembodied” reminds us that what we see on television, read about on Facebook or experience firsthand is not a new problem. While many people would like to believe that we’ve moved past all of this “race stuff,” this exhibition reasserts the key societal and psychological issues that we must still wrestle with. We cannot erase this from our memory. Attempting to do so has led to the America we now live in. Who’s happy with that?

“Poetics of the Disembodied” will be on view at MOCA GA through September 10. Masud Olufani will be giving an artist talk in conjunction with the exhibition on Thursday, August 4 at 6:30 pm. 

Greg Head is an Atlanta-based writer and cultural anthropologist. He is also managing partner at SmartThink Marketing Group, a research and marketing strategy consultancy, and a BURNAWAY board member.