John Edmonds on the complex role of the African art object
In 2019, Brooklyn-based photographer John Edmonds received the Brooklyn Museum’s inaugural award UOVO Award. The annual honor, which is awarded to an emerging artist based in Brooklyn, serves as a collaboration between the museum and New York’s art storage facility, UOVO. The winners are offered a public installation on the facade of UOVO: Brooklyn, as well as a solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. Edmonds’ resulting exhibition, “A sideways glance”, Opened on October 23, 2020. Inspired by an essay of the same name, written by art historian Krista Thompson, the exhibition juxtaposes African art objects with black subjects, initiating a dialogue about how these artifacts challenge our understanding of the West. canon of art, its institutions and the diaspora. Last March, Edmonds received the Paul Huf Foam Prize, and is currently preparing an upcoming solo exhibition at the Amsterdam gallery. Below, Edmonds discusses “A Sidelong Glance,” the role of natural hair in his work, and why Blackness isn’t a monolith.
JULIANA UKIOMOGBE: Hi, John. I know we introduced you in 2019, so welcome back.
JEAN EDMONDS: Thank you!
UKIOMOGBE: In this story we used the image of “Two Spirits”, which is also included in your exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. About that image, you said, “A lot of masks and objects have been taken out of context and their origin story, and as an African American I’m interested in dealing with that. Is “A Sidelong Glance” the product of this investigation?
EDMONDS: This exhibition is for me an analysis of the relationship between the black human subject and the African art object. I analyze some of the gaps that have largely affected the dislocation of the African art object in visual history and culture.
UKIOMOGBE: How does the title of the exhibition relate to art historian Krista Thompson? I read a little how his essay [“A Sidelong Glance: The Practice of African Diaspora Art History in the United States”] inspired you.
EDMONDS: First, the title can be taken literally: I look at the African art object, the role of the museum, and this ongoing dialogue with a certain degree of suspicion. “A Sidelong Glance” is a look at something with an inquisition level. Krista Thompson’s essay examines the ways in which African art and diaspora stories have been framed in the West. Since we are in the West, I recognize it in the show and in the title of the show.
UKIOMOGBE: When did you start organizing the show?
EDMONDS: The curatorial process started in 2019. Each exhibition is an ongoing process in terms of how certain works change with the context. This is something you can see throughout “A Sidelong Glance”. We also clearly see the importance of the juxtaposition of the black human subject and the African art object. In retrospect, the conservation process began when I photographed Ralph Ellison’s African art objects that are housed in the [Brooklyn] Museum. I wanted to look at this collection as it has been kept at the museum for some time. In the past, the museum has invited other artists to do projects that were interpretations of Ellison’s African art collection and I’m the first artist to do so, so it’s a great honor.
UKIOMOGBE: What inspires you about masks?
EDMONDS: I’m interested in their formal beauty. The wood carving that you see throughout the exhibition is very much linked to specific cultures, especially in West Africa where many objects come from. The formal beauty and the real technique of the craftsmanship strikes me very much. I wanted to take a close look at my documentation of these objects.
UKIOMOGBE: Do you collect African art yourself?
EDMONDS: Yeah, I know that. I have my own small collection which started in 2018. Collecting African art objects is not something that I consider separate from my artistic practice. It all fits into my life’s work of using photography to reaffirm these stories.
UKIOMOGBE: What do you think these objects represent?
EDMONDS: So many different things. This is something that “A Sidelong Glance” really manages to explore. The way African art has generally been shown and exhibited in museums is in a “highly artistic” way. But, many objects in the exhibition are utilitarian and used on a daily basis. In many ways, I am interested in this lived experience, which means that I also create a certain level of questioning of these objects. There is no monolithic way of looking at African art, the same way there is no monolithic way of looking at black people, the same way there is no way. monolithic to talk about the black experience. This is what the show really insists on conveying.
UKIOMOGBE: I want to talk about the hair for a minute. In most portraits, your subjects wear their natural hair, either in waves, dreads, or under a durag. Was it intentional on your part?
EDMONDS: I’m very inspired by hair politics, but in most of my work I’m interested in what my subjects arrive as they are. I am interested in the ordinary beauty of the black human subject. Hair is an important aspect in many photos, but there is a range of hairstyles and presentations. I’m not interested in making them someone they’re not.
UKIOMOGBE: Regarding the physical space of the exhibition, did you have any say in the placement of certain photos in the room?
EDMONDS: Absolutely. I worked closely with the curators to create the rhythm of the exhibition which is based on both the past and the future. The exhibition takes into account the evolution of African art through visual culture, particularly in the histories of photography and art. There aren’t a lot of stories, but there are a lot of stories that are brought to the fore.
UKIOMOGBE: Do you have a favorite photo on the show?
EDMONDS: I don’t have a favorite, but there is an image that is very important in the exhibition. It’s “Anatolli & Collection”. It is a very important job because it is very emblematic of what I have been doing as a maker for several years. I collect these objects and view them with a certain level of discernment and inquisition.
UKIOMOGBE: How do you find the titles for each work? Do you have a process?
EDMONDS: Since much of this work is about a scholarly approach, the titles are objective. These are direct observations. Sometimes still lifes and sculptures are titled in an indexed manner in order to clearly distinguish this idea of archival construction. All of these images exist in a single archive. Over time, the meaning may change, but it is anchored in a specific context.
UKIOMOGBE: Where did you take these images?
EDMONDS: In many different places. I use a makeshift studio, both in the museum and in my own living space. I am interested in the role of photography in the sculpture of space. This is something that is very powerful in the exhibition. It is this idea that work can happen anywhere. Work is not something that is married to a space or a place. In the last room of the exhibition, a photograph entitled “Marion & Yaure Mask” was taken at the Cour des Beaux-Arts. Studio work and practice don’t have to be in the studio. I see “A Sidelong Glance” as an opportunity to open all these different doors of interpretation instead of the limitations that are often imposed on conversations around darkness and diasporas.
UKIOMOGBE: Can you tell us a bit more about these limitations?
EDMONDS: I’m not talking about the limits of black artists, although there are many, but rather the limits of how blackness is described, seen and felt. Often the audience engages with the surface of the work. My show puts a lot of emphasis on asking the audience to engage with the subject beyond the obvious. This is why context is so important.
UKIOMOGBE: How has the pandemic changed the way you work?
EDMONDS: It really interrupted the way I use my time. I don’t think it really changed my interests that much. In many ways, it actually deepened my interests.
UKIOMOGBE: Is there a message you want viewers to take away from the exhibition?
EDMONDS: When they see my photographs, I want them to know that the past is always present. It is something that we cannot escape. The past must be dealt with. We need to look at our past to understand our present and move towards a fairer and more equitable future. At the heart of all my work is a love and affinity for the subject. I don’t mean this in a romantic way, although sometimes romance is part of it, but I mean it in the sense that love comes by looking deeper and beyond.
“A sideways glanceIs on view at the Brooklyn Museum until September 26, 2021.