Masud Olufani explores memory and its connection to the genealogy of people of African descent. I spoke with the artist about his project in progress, Chorus of Memory, for which he recently received a grant from Idea Capital.
Annabella Jean-Laurent: Tell me about Chorus of Memory. How was this project born? What does it entail and how will you bring it to life?
Masud Olufani: I began thinking about the genealogy of memory, particularly of those of African descent across the diaspora, and how it pertains to us. I came up with the idea to record the genealogy of elders by asking them a series of simple questions like, “Would you recite your genealogy as far back as you can?” and get them to go back until they can’t go anymore. With all of that recorded information, I wanted to create a vehicle to share this information with the public.
A mosaic wall of mouths, all in various shades of blackness—from caramel to blue-black—will include a composite sample of 100 voices, which will be hooked to speakers. I thought of adding motion sensors, so that when visitors move towards the piece, one voice rises against another and then another, and another, until they finally create this cacophony of voices, and then the testimony stops. Then, there is silence—meaning that the voices can’t go back in history anymore.
AL: What is it about documenting memory that is so important to you?
MO: I think there’s such a memory gap in black people’s stories, particularly due to slavery. Records of where people came from will show gaps … and in many cases, these ancestors are kind of lost to us, so a lot of the detective work is up to us. Because at some point, people won’t be able to go back any further. In Chorus of Memory, when the voices descend back into silence, it means they want to remember but don’t have the information to do that.
AL: You once said that as people, “we are rooted in cultural sensibility.” I found the term “cultural sensibility” very intriguing. What does that mean to you?
MO: I believe there are dynamics of experience that shape us all individually, and then there are cultural dynamics that shape us collectively. So, “cultural sensibility” is that unique expression of culture as it manifests itself in thought and conversation, art, and familial expression. I believe the universe is in the individual.
There are people who tend to believe in color blindness and say “you should strive to make your work ‘universal.” However, to me, the universe is found in the individual stories of people: black, Asian, even whites. But unfortunately, in the West, whites have been the benchmark for humanity, so people of color are constantly having to prove themselves through that benchmark. But, blackness is universal. Redness is universal and yellow too. Even whiteness, as long as it doesn’t think it’s the only universal.
AL: What do you hope people gain from Chorus of Memory?
MO: My intent is to give people a sense of the importance of familial and genealogical lineage, connection, and the absence of those things in our lives. How do we navigate through the spaces where we don’t have the names to call? And, what does that mean for a person? It is just as much about the silence as it is the stories. Hopefully, it raises a lot of interesting questions and lets people come up with their own answers.
Annabella Jean-Laurent is an Atlanta-based freelance writer who blogs at militantbarbie.com. Her writing explores race, media, and gender in society.