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Ulysses Jenkins in studio circa 1983. The artist sits with their legs crossed in front of a complex piece of work.

Issue 002 Spring 2021 Interviews

A Fusion of Forms

Curators Erin Christovale and Meg Onli Discuss Their Retrospective of Ulysses Jenkins

Ulysses Jenkins in studio circa 1983. Image courtesy of the artist.

Over the past fifty years, Ulysses Jenkins, an artist born and based in Los Angeles, has produced a remarkable body of work that interrogates constructions of race and gender as they relate to ritual, history, and the power of the state. His work—documentary, public access television, music, video, performance, and other visual arts—encapsulates a fusion of forms to conjure vibrant meditations on how image, sound, and cultural iconography inform representation. From Jenkins’s work with Video Venice News, an LA media collective he founded in the early 1970s, to his involvement with the artist group Studio Z (alongside David Hammons, Senga Nengudi, and Maren Hassinger), to his individual video and performance works with Othervisions Studio, he has consistently and explicitly countered the embedding of white supremacy in popular culture.

In September 2021 at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), University of Pennsylvania, we will collaboratively stage the first major retrospective of Jenkins’s work, Ulysses Jenkins: Without Your Interpretation, which will then travel to the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, in January 2022. In this conversation, the two of us reflect on curating the exhibition and Jenkins’s impact on generations of artists.

Video is a more democratic medium and, in many ways, synonymous with documenting Black quotidian life. We continue to see that legacy in the work of the artists [Ulysses] has influenced.

Meg Onli: How did you first encounter Ulysses’s work?

Erin Christovale: The first time I encountered Ulysses’s work was in the landmark show Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960–1980, curated by Dr. Kellie Jones in 2011. The show featured Black artists working in LA from the 1970s to the 1990s, but more broadly, it was one of the first shows that presented wide-sweeping scholarship of an older generation of Black artists. Ulysses was the only video artist in that show, and that really stood out to me. At the time, I was actively thinking through Black experimental moving image with my ongoing project Black Radical Imagination, so the discovery of this artist whose work wasn’t widely recognized or easily classifiable was hugely important for me.

The same year, I met Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar, founders of the Otolith Group. Once, over dinner, we bonded over Ulysses and our shared sense of his importance as an artist. Shortly after, I got an email from Kodwo, which basically said, “You and your friends should do a show on Ulysses. I think it would be wonderful.” That was one of the first moments in my curatorial history I was given permission, by someone I respected in the field, to do the work I wanted to do.

What about you?

MO: Now Dig This! is a seminal exhibition to my curatorial practice. Especially given that you and I are both from Los Angeles, Dr. Jones had uncovered an entire history that I’d been so hungry for. I paid a lot of money to go to art school, and I remember seeing the show and feeling frustrated: What? I totally missed all of this.

The next time I saw Ulysses’s work was at the Whitney’s reopening exhibition, America Is Hard to See (2015), which screened his films Without Your Interpretation (1983) and Mass of Images (1978). Later I realized that I drove past his murals on my way to school as a kid and that some of his public access work was filmed blocks away from my childhood home. By the time I started working at the ICA and Alex Klein curated Broadcasting: EAI at ICA, Ulysses was a person I was thinking seriously about.

Erin, you and I have often talked about Ulysses as the forefather to the practices of so many people we are invested in—folks such as Aria Dean, who’s written about Ulysses’s work, and Martine Syms, Sondra Perry, and Jibade-Khalil Huffman, who are all making video work that seems to be in dialogue with Ulysses’s. It is important to look back and chart that history, especially given the way Black experimental artists have come to the forefront in art spaces and independent film spaces in recent years, putting forward radically different modalities of moving-image making.EC: Ulysses committed to video as a format at the same time it was introduced to the public—it’s highly ephemeral, malleable, and most importantly, it’s affordable. In contrast, when considering the history of film, numerous Black artists and artists of color have not had the opportunity to explore cinema because of structural barriers in the production process. Video is a more democratic medium and, in many ways, synonymous with documenting Black quotidian life. We continue to see that legacy in the work of the artists he has influenced.

Ulysses Jenkins, “Columbus Day: A Doggerel” at LACE in Los Angeles, 1979.
Ulysses Jenkins, “Columbus Day: A Doggerel” at LACE in Los Angeles, 1979. Image Courtesy of the Artist.

MO: His work with video makes so much sense. I’d argue that a major theme within Ulysses’s oeuvre is his constant examination of what he calls “the same old image problem.” He is always investigating and challenging Black representation within popular media. He understands that there’s no way to completely escape the stereotypical ways we have been represented in media. So instead, he tinkers, pokes, and prods. He’s such a prankster, you know?

Erin, your catalog text examines Ulysses’s view of multiculturalism, which to me feels like such a reflection of growing up in Los Angeles. How do you see that appearing within his work?

EC: As he is thinking about and working with Native and Indigenous folks and Latinx artists like Rudy Perez and Patssi Valdez, he is still doing so through the lens of a Black man in America. Since cinema is so often shaped by a white gaze, his work provided a rare opportunity of seeing through a largely underrepresented perspective.

I think of ritual and spirituality as other major themes in his work. He reasserts those themes in his work, but in a way that’s so particular to his style. They are defining facets across origin stories and cultural markers that are uniquely reflected through video, as opposed to their erasure in the colonial legacies of cinema. He isn’t relying on older spiritual practices. He’s reimagining them in ways that point to both diaspora and multiculturalism.

Something I appreciate about California is that it provides the opportunity to live amongst and practice a multiculturalism that diverges from the typical neoliberal version we’ve been fed. Ulysses grew up in Culver City, not far from Desi Arnaz studios, with the film industry looming over him every day. I think he had a desire to respond as a video maker.

Other than the film industry, how have you felt Ulysses’s work interjects within the art world?

MO: Thinking about the fact that Ulysses has had almost no solo shows within his entire career is really a gut punch—to neglect someone of Ulysses’s caliber, his artistic practice, not to mention his deep pedagogical influence. We titled the show Without Your Interpretation after one of Ulysses’s videos, because he was often the only person interpreting his own work, due to the lack of critical attention to his practice. I was blown away talking to Ulysses about why he writes about his work from many angles. He responded, “No one else was writing about my work. How else could I bring people into the fold?”1 I think a lot of that is coming from biases against Black artists—even in Los Angeles at that time—but also bias against moving image work and how it is shown within institutions.

Still from Self Divination (1989). Still courtesy of Ulysses Jenkins. Shows a Black artist's hand drawing shapes.
Self Divination (1989). Still courtesy of Ulysses Jenkins.

EC: Something reiterated by Ulysses and his peers is that they were not creating with the market or institutions in mind because those spaces were actively not welcoming them. That refusal of their work allowed them to come together in more intimate and radical ways. Ulysses is always excited to talk about all of his friends and collaborators who made work with him. It’s an amazing group of people who will also be present in this exhibition, such as Houston Conwill, May Sun, and Daniel Joseph Martinez.

In looking back over the history of his work and impact, we’re also contending with the widespread lack of historical grounding we have as curators, historians, artists, and thinkers to really engage critically with video art, and especially Black video art. On top of figuring out how museumgoers will navigate exhibition spaces in light of the pandemic, we’re thinking a lot about audio and accessibility: headphones and black boxes, how light and sound interact with each other in these spaces.

MO: What do you want people to get from this show?

EC: I want his name etched in stone, because he deserves it. Many of his contemporaries have great careers with much recognition, and his work is equally as important. I’m honored to do this work now and with you, especially since he is an elder. That is a reality, and I want us to celebrate him while he’s still here.

MO: I hope people see his incredible practice and feel, as we do, that there’s something undeniable about Ulysses. He’s so compelling—his style, his fashion, his aesthetics. I’m excited people are ready to look at and appreciate the quality of Ulysses’s video work. It honestly makes me happy. His work always feels vibrant and bursting at the seams. I love the textures that he’s making visually. He’s also just fucking cool.


1. Conversation with the curator, January 1, 2021.