artist azikiwe mohammed is building a fictional town for black americans who don't feel safe
The Tribeca-born artist's ongoing New Davonhaime project curates objects and memories to create a collective past in the present moment. Ahead of his new installation 'Potential Futures / Black Receipts,' Mohammed talks to i-D about scouring roadside...
"Potential Futures" #7, 2016, C-print
Azikiwe Mohammed didn't feel safe in America, so he built his own fictional town. New Davonhaime — a linguistic mash-up of the five American cities with the highest density of African-American residents — is constructed from memories. The Tribeca-born-and-raised artist travels to the real places that inspire the alternate one, stopping in at un-Yelpable thrift stores and eating consecutive meals at Waffle House. He often photographs the people he meets on the road. Last year, frustrated by lack of the lack of images of black people doing things other than dying or being arrested, he posted a Craigslist call looking for subjects. "Most people outside of major cities don't have their photo taken unless it's state mandated," he reminds us. "You don't have your portrait taken very often." One guy, Floyd, who he met at a Memphis dive bar, later sent Mohammed a thank-you text message and an invitation to dinner next time he's back in town.
Mohammed's new show Potential Futures / Black Receipts is an extension of his Dustin Yellin-endorsed Spring/Break installation Jimmy's Thrift — a New Davonhaime thrift store packed with objects and memories. "How do these items act once you take them out of this thrift store landscape and present them as items in and of themselves?" he asks. The objects include books, records, postcards and lots of textiles — including a modified Confederate flag. At the same time, Mohammed is heavily inspired by the internet, often incorporating memes directly into his art. Instagram is also a place where memory is manipulated as an object passes into new hands. His previous show, Black Internet, addressed this through woven tapestries reading "Free Boosie" or "Free Max B," referring to the jailed rappers who became famous on the internet only after incarceration.
Ahead of the new show, we talk to Mohammed about the potential future of New Davonhaime and what Confederate flags have in common with memes.
Has growing up in such a gentrified NYC neighborhood shaped your perspective on more stagnant or isolated communities within the U.S.?
The neighborhoods that I travel to, people have lived there their entire lives. Especially with this batch of work, a lot of the people I came across have lived there for 30 or 40 years. They live in the family home after the family moves out or passes, or they move somewhere a few blocks away. The neighborhood I grew up in and still live in is very different in terms of being one of the wealthiest zip codes on the planet. I am not one of the wealthiest humans on the planet. Outside of that, a lot of the brick and mortar, and how that rolls out, is the same. The place is different but the disease is consistent.
Who are the people in the photos? I recognized one woman, Josie, from a Craigslist ad you posted looking for subjects.
Most of them are people I met on my travels. A few of them are from New York, but it's mostly word of mouth. The Craigslist thing is just in case — maybe someone will answer, and the circumstance will work. For the most part it's friends on Facebook or people I meet on the road.
What is the response of people you do meet on the road when you tell them what they are doing?
It makes total sense to them. I don't feel safe as a black man in America. They're black people in America — they also don't feel safe. When I explained why I was taking photos, they would be like, "Shit, yeah I'm tired of seeing dead black people on the news all the time as well. I'm tired of being stared at by people like an object. What if there were some other pictures that were added to the zeitgeist to tilt the scale?" I try to mail physical prints back to the people I meet, because if I just have them then it's just me collecting things. The whole idea is that "we" have them.
Is New Davonhaime a utopia?
No, because a utopia can't exist. What does exist is another option. The towns that make up New Davonhaime were attempts at safe spaces, at restarting the clock. The population density has been the same for a really long time and it generally didn't happen over 20 or 30 years — it generally happened all at once. It's an exodus. People weren't getting something somewhere else, so they decided to go somewhere else and give it a shot. If there's more than one [of these towns], it didn't work. Where each one of them individually didn't fulfill what this idea of a new start was, maybe all together as a unit they can.
Tell me about the postcards that you encourage people to write in. Why are they so important?
What I try to do is to have other people's input into what the place looks like. And a good way to do that is through postcards. It's a way to prove you've been somewhere — you don't ask who made it, you say, "Where is this?" I hand out postcards, I have a P.O. Box and stamps, and I have people write a memory of their visit to the town — a memory they're not getting here but would like to get in some other place. The responses are very varied. The people who need something more than others need less explanation as to what to write or what that prompt is. Some people are like, "I want my dad back." Another person, "I went to Sandy's Fish Shop, I was served very well, the food was good and reasonable. Stop by next time you're here." Taking an average of all these memories, I can get a better idea of what New Davonhaime looks like from the memories of the other residents' visits.
What are you looking for when visiting flea markets and thrift stores? What catches your eye?
For the most part, the items that hold memory the most — the painted jewelry box that says "Chuck" on it. Somebody made that for Chuck, and, for whatever reason, it's no longer needed. Maybe Chuck's not around, maybe the relationship with Chuck is different. Do I buy that item? Maybe. Do I buy another one of those items? Maybe. Photos, records, books, painted items, a lot of textiles — those are a lot of the objects that people create, regardless of skill level, for another person, to commemorate something or to express a feeling or emotion. These items are the ones that really tell a story about the location and its people. Just because something is in a thrift store doesn't mean it's garbage. If it's garbage, you put it in the garbage. [An item in a thrift store] can continue to have a further life from the one that you have already given it. Those memories will continue to live through and with another person.
You work a lot with memes. How do you see objects on the internet in relation to objects in real life?
Memes, in particular, I think of as an expression of a very complicated English language which is completely fluent and makes no sense. New words are being introduced all the time, and physical dictionaries have no place any more because they can't keep up. American English is changing on a daily basis. Memes just exploit this option. Emojis are a great example of imagery replacing language. Images have always been used as language, but never as much or in as fully fleshed out ways as they are now. Collapsing those two spaces into each other gives us this wonderful landscape, which are the memes that are refined everywhere. With the work that I make outside of memes, it's the same — if you can create an image that replaces the word that you would use, why explain the thing when you can just show the thing?
Do you think of this wonderful landscape as a physical one, the same way towns and states are?
The internet is the only location that is consistent for most of us. People sublet, or move around, and the internet is the one place that allows us to curate our own homes and our own lives. Much of the imagery and physical items that I'm interested in at this point are on the internet, but in most of the places I'm going to, [the internet is] an afterthought — they're places where the people are still making the physical items that I'm recreating. For instance, I got some flags made that are going to be in the new show, and the company that made the flags wrote me a handwritten postcard thanking me for my business, and on the card was a photo of all the people who worked there. That's crazy.
Are you referring to the green Confederate flag you posted on Instagram?
I had to go to Canada for that. In most of the companies making flags in America, one of the items that sells the most is the Thin Blue Line flag. If that's your concern, then you're not that willing to think about making a red, black, and green Confederate flag. In Canada, they're like, "Oh, the flag with the stars and the triangle? I think I've seen this before!"
It definitely doesn't carry that weight in other countries. My grandma in New Zealand didn't understand why they were taking them down last year, because she thinks the design is beautiful.
Design-wise, it's amazing. It's beautiful! The problem is, it carries a lot of juice with it, that's not as wonderful.
I guess it's like memes — not everyone speaks the coded language.
Yes. It's another language. Think about Dat Boi — the frog on the bike — really short-lived, but an incredible moment. Where did he come from? Did he come from Pepe? What does the unicycle say? The internet bursts these things out so fast and if you don't know what these words or phrases mean, then you're not going to be able to understand what any of this stuff is. But that's true with most language. That's why I try really hard to use signifiers — both physical items, imagery, things that speak directly to people's memories in terms of things that they recall. If they recall one or two items, the third item they might feel like they know already even if they don't. One lady walked into Jimmy's Thrift and said, "This looks like my cousin's house." Then she looked at a photo album and she was like, "That's my friend Kim." Clearly it wasn't, but the option that it might be means that the other objects in that room allowed her to internalize the experience and physically insert herself into it in a direct way.
I saw you recently came across a couple of quilts that were used to communicate information during the days of the underground railroad. Do these also interest you as another example of manufactured language?
Yeah, similar. I'm continuing to learn more and more about the underground railroad. At a lot of the legacy sites, you find someone who's been there their whole life, and their grandparents were slaves. Because slavery wasn't that long ago. You can talk to someone and be like, "Hey, the internet says this — is that true?" And they can be like, "No." Which is insane. It's that close. But the underground railroad had to build its own language of secrecy in order to get people to and from places. Again, that's a very image-based history. A lot of slaves were kept from learning how to read, because reading is power, so the slave quilts played a very large role in helping people figure out how to get to and from places. It was another batch of different symbols that were moved around and gave a direct message only to the batch of people who understood what those symbols are, outside of its aesthetic value. Which I think is similar to what we just said about memes. If you know A, B, and D, you can probably get C. But if you don't know any of the letters, you'll think, "Oh that looks cool," and you'll keep moving.
"Potential Futures / Black Receipts," curated by Lauren Wolchik, is on view at IDIO Gallery in Brooklyn from January 28 through February 12, 2017.
Text Hannah Ongley
- Azikiwe Mohammed