A mouse on the mic. The image of white Jesus and African sculptures. Dirt bikes, African Fractals, and UFO crop circles. This may seem to be a disparate list, but in the eyes of artist Emmanuel Massillon, everything is connected.
Contrasting imagery was ever present in Emmanuel Massillon’s Some Believe It To Be Conspiracy and Imprints of Connection, his debut exhibitions with the United Talent Agency Artist Space. Massillon exhibits his artistic dexterity by utilizing a wide range of techniques and found objects to explore connections between race, identity, and culture within the African Diaspora.
In Some Believe It To Be Conspiracy, Massillon uses dynamic assemblages, sculptures, collages, and even a self-produced music track to comment on and explore some of the deeply meaningful traditions and devastating issues that have and continue to impact the Black community. From the Tuskegee Experiment to tithing, from the heroin epidemic to cocaine—it’s all there. He describes himself as a producer, sampling and mixing different sounds to create one harmonious beat.
Conspiracy is defined as a plan secretly devised by a group to accomplish an evil or treacherous deed. External forces have consistently attempted to disrupt the stability of the Black community for centuries. Some Believe It To Be Conspiracy is Massillon’s bid to explore the truth behind the conspiracies that plague the Black community while simultaneously holding up a mirror, imploring Black people to question some of our own beliefs, where they come from, and how they affect our environment and wellbeing.
One such popular controversial conspiracy is represented in his piece “Black Savior”, a gray scale mixed media photo collage featuring the distorted image of white Jesus camouflaged under a thick layer of acrylic paint. The repeated depictions of Jesus Christ tell the story of race and religion in America. Many hold that white Jesus iconography was used to subjugate slaves through religious imagery. In this piece, Massillon is unafraid to challenge his audience with ideas that could be considered jarring, polarizing, or even blasphemous, all while being thought-provoking and memorable.
While much of Massillon’s work addresses heavy topics with seriousness, he also possesses the ability to comment on social issues with a humorous hand. “Self-Snitching” exemplifies his storytelling in a simple yet effective assemblage. On a platform not much higher than my ankle stood a white taxidermy mouse holding a microphone up to its mouth with its two little hands as if he were about to perform his greatest hits. “Growing up in the inner city, I’ve noticed a lot of my peers would attempt to be rappers to escape their economic circumstances because, being a young Black male in America, you look at the TV and see all these rappers flashing all of this jewelry and this money, living this lavish lifestyle.” Massillon said. As Black culture is focused on authenticity, especially within our music, many young men and women that enter the rap game fall into the trap of participating in derogatory acts in hopes of gaining authenticity, then rapping lyrics about said acts, effectively becoming their own “snitch” or “rat”. Then, they are arrested, and those lyrics are thrown in their face as proof in a courtroom. Massillon alludes to this by using this taxidermy rodent to represent the “rat” ratting himself out on the mic.
The work presented in Some Believe it to be Conspiracy felt like a look inside Massillon’s mind, showcasing his wide-ranging use of materials and techniques. His works illustrate his natural curiosity and his desire not to be limited by mediums or schools of thought. This desire to buck convention and limitation calls the artist to take bold risks, such as his transferring social commentary into an outdoor performance piece, Imprints of Connection.
Imprints of Connection is a land art piece that was conceived by Massillon after studying under the mentorship of famed land artist and sculptor Alice Aycock, whose work inspired him to try his hand at land art for the first time with an ambitious performance piece. Drawing inspiration from African Fractals and UFO crop circles, his goal was to create a semi-permanent earthwork representing Black community and resilience, made in collaboration with local Black bike group atlbikelife. The bikers were to drive around the dirt to create intricate patterns as an homage to fractals and crop circles. Note, the choice to hire Black bikers for this display was intentional, as land art is historically presented as a white dominated field in the wake of centuries of erasure. The use of bikers itself is another bold move on Massillon’s part, as he is challenging the image society projects upon those who live outside the confines of respectability politics. “A lot of people see these dirt bikers as a menace to society”, Massillon stated in our conversation, “but I want to challenge that and show that this is their art form and their way of expressing themselves just like anybody else would.” All these elements served as a direct challenge to who has the authority to make land art.
The performance began unceremoniously, with the bikers driving onto the empty dirt lot and proceeding to circle around the field, occasionally riding around strategically placed cones and wood to define the pattern they were creating in the dirt. The energy was high with the loud buzz of the bikes reverberating through the air, the dust from the dry dirt beneath the bikes filling the air, and the bass of the music pounding out of the speakers.
However, there did seem to be a moment when the artist’s train started to jump the track. The ground was too dry for a pattern to be imprinted into it. Pivoting, he had a friend immediately bring out a truck full of water, and they proceeded to wet the ground with a hose to soften it. This solution seemed to work well enough for Massillon, as the bikers continued to circle around the damp open space.
While I too believe wetting the ground made it more conducive to accepting the pattern the bikers were attempting to create, I was unfortunately unable to feel the full impact of the final pattern because by the time they were complete it had already become dark. Though Massillon did attempt to remedy this by having several of his friends/team members pull their cars around to the lot to shine their headlights to illuminate the field, it was still not enough to appreciate the work.
I returned to the field the following afternoon to take a good look at the final pattern he created. It was not the intricate pattern I expected. Although I could see circles of light tire tracks, (one circle inside the other), the piece wasn’t as impactful as I expected or as the references to UFO crop circles and African fractals implied. However, I did see the resilience and community reflected within the performance itself. While the original artistic goal may not have been met, the triumph manifested itself through a community of Black bikers and artists coming together to create a symbol of their existence in Atlanta and in the land art space.