American Cypher Project – Mendi and Keith Obadike


Mendi Obadike:
We’re going to start by saying how happy we are to be here. We appreciate all of our fellow
panelists, and moderator, whom we’ve known since we were about 16 years old, as well
as the organizers of the conference. Keith Obadike:
It’s still coming up. So we’re going to talk today about a recent project — okay. We’re going to talk today about a recent project
entitled “American Cypher,” and this project looks at American stories about DNA and identity.
But we got to this project through some earlier works that looked at sort of data around black
bodies. So, in 2007, we did a piece called “Big House/Disclosure,” that was commissioned
by Northwestern University. And that project explored sort of reparations, among other
things, and it — we did a number of interviews about the city of Chicago slavery-era disclosure
ordinance. The city has a policy where if you’re a corporation that wants a city contract,
you have to disclose whether you benefitted from the slave trade. Mendi Obadike:
Or whether you descended from another business that benefitted from the slave trade. And
so they didn’t have to do anything besides do the research and disclose it, but there
was a lot of resistance to this policy. Keith Obadike:
So we collected a number of interviews with citizens in the city of Chicago, and we asked
people about their family history, how they came to this country, and we also asked them
what they thought about this city policy. And the result of that is that we made a sort
of long-form sort of sound installation, a kind of 200-hour-long house song that played
in public spaces in the city of Chicago; you could also hear this piece online. And so
through thinking about history in that way, that led us to this project. And so this was
a 2011-2012 commission from Bucknell University originally. And Bucknell asked us to think
about the sort of relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Mendi Obadike:
And so in doing a lot of research about Hemings and the Jefferson family, we became really
interested in the way that the story about the DNA that links them told us — how that
changed the way that people talked about the story. Not everybody changed their minds about
the story, but it made different kinds of questions come about. So we became really
interested in the stories about DNA and how that told us how we were related to each other,
what was passed down, and what people thought DNA could do, what kind of information that
did. Keith Obadike:
So I’m sure all of you know the sort of research that was published in the late ’90s sort of
linking the Hemings and Jefferson families. That led us to looking at other American stories
about race, identity, and DNA. And so we collected a number of popular stories — some of these
stories are referenced earlier — and we made a number of things from these stories. So
we created the book that responds to things like, you know, Oprah Winfrey’s claim that
she’s a Zulu, or stories about President Obama’s lineage. Other stories that we collected — Mendi Obadike:
James Watson, who is credited, along with Crick ,of discovering the helix form, and
his statement about African intelligence. Keith Obadike:
Yeah, in 2007 — sorry. Mendi Obadike:
Go ahead and say it. Keith Obadike:
In 2007, you know, Watson made statements implying that Africans were genetically inferior.
And then later it sort of came out that, you know, Watson had a great deal of African ancestry
himself. [laughter] And so we just couldn’t resist that. And then
the other stories we look at are two men who have sort of different relationships to the
criminal justice system. One person is James Bain, who was freed by the Innocence Project
after serving 34, 35 years in prison. And then another person is Lonnie Franklin, also
known as the Grim Sleeper, who was a serial killer who was in prison who was captured
because he showed up in a familial database, DNA database. So the image that you see here is actually
a bell that belonged to Sally Hemings. And this object functioned at the center of our
project. It was a sort of a stand in. We needed a kind of physical object that would stand
in for DNA for us. And this is her last remaining possession; it’s owned by Howard University
but it lives in Monticello. We thought that was interesting. [laughter] And so we took this bell and, you know, we
asked — Mendi Obadike:
Well, the bell also was given to her by Thomas Jefferson’s wife, who was also her half-sister.
And when we did the research and found out about the bell, we didn’t really know what
we’d find. We didn’t realize until we saw it that it was clearly a service bell. But
that was an interesting thing to pass on. Keith Obadike:
So we were really fascinated by the bell, so — we make a lot of musical pieces, sound
pieces, so we asked everybody if we could ring this bell. And we guessed because it
was such an odd request, they said okay. So they let us ring the bell, we recorded it,
and we made a sound installation from it. So the first version of the project was a
sound piece that played in — on the campus of Bucknell University. And so we made a kind
of double helix, a kind of sort of sound pattern that played in the student center, using moving
speakers inside the student center. We later took this project and expanded on it some
at the Studio Museum in Harlem. And so what you see here is a version of the
sort of sound installation with a video piece, and there are some prints that go along with
this at the Studio Museum in Harlem. And this was up from March to June of this year. Now
it’s moving to another space. So there are a couple of things that you see here, right.
The image here is a still of some animation that goes on, and this is actually information
from the Jefferson and Hemings family. And we use that as a score to sort of generate
the musical information in the piece. Mendi Obadike:
So we also had a number of poems about our five stories and parables, and we’re going
to read a few of those briefly. “Sally Hemings in the helix.” How short the violets are. Keith Obadike:
How the eyelets droop. Mendi Obadike:
What sorrows the skin protects. Keith Obadike:
The moon shape of the cells. Mendi Obadike:
How likely we are to deteriorate. Keith Obadike:
Who the father is. Mendi Obadike:
If there are dimples. Keith Obadike:
Everything the genes could reveal. Mendi Obadike:
Has already been said by a woman. “Oprah as a Zulu.” [laughter] What a sorrowful dream it would be to carry
— Keith Obadike:
— a Zulu across the continent to the western coast — Mendi Obadike:
— just to be stolen. Perhaps she dreams there was — Keith Obadike:
— a slave castle at Africa’s glorious southern cape. Mendi Obadike:
Or does she imagine this ancestor new, no chains — Keith Obadike:
— was propelled for some odd purpose to these — Mendi Obadike:
— unlikely shores. An immigrant, astonishingly free. Keith Obadike:
But in the end, as lost to us as all the ordinary others. So the last piece that we’re going to read
here is a parable. And this is called “One Drop for James Watson.” [laughter] Mendi Obadike:
An architect dreamed of drawing a portrait of our origins. First, he drew a ladder; next,
a zipper. He finally landed on the shape of a double stair, winding steps met in the center
and continued to twist. What did it cost the man to fathom this design? Nothing but the
study of light. He built a platform in the center of town and began to speak. At first,
the people applauded. For decades the man continued to speak. Poison began to pour from
his mouth. It stained the portrait and tainted the air. The people ran for cover. The man
stayed on the platform, whispering apologies to no one. Sometimes we picture the sketchbook,
the so many pages of errors, bits of eraser still stuck in the pages. Sometimes it is
the moment a friend enters the studio, we imagine. She leans over the draft and points.
Sometimes it’s the tilted head of the man who drew the shape, or the moment he looks
at the page and thinks, “Something’s not right.” Forget the figure, though it’s true, you don’t
know much about a thing before you know its shape. The man who drew the helix after so
many tries smeared his masterwork with one gesture. We lament the drunken stroke, the
shoddy annex throed [spelled phonetically] before a crowd. We sing a song with a thoughtful
designer, ever aware of the feet on the stairs. Keith Obadike:
So we’ll stop there. Thank you. [applause] Johnnetta Cole:
When you have the privilege of working with four artists, you dare not do something in
an ordinary way. And so what I would suggest that we do now in the very few minutes that
we have left, is rather than having the moderator pose questions to the panelists, we’re going
to have the panelists pose questions to each other. You like that? [laughter] [applause] So, good Dr. Cheryl, what would you like to
ask of your colleagues? Cheryl Finley:
Thank you, Dr. Cole. I posed a question earlier, so we’re a little bit primed and prompted.
But I think it’s one that we could all have something to say about. And the question is
what is the role of memory in your work? How does it affect and/or influence or shape your
aesthetic choices? And so when I think about the work that you
just showed, Keith and Mendi, they’re central figures, but you also are trained as sound
artists, and as writers, and as visual and performance artists. So you might think of,
in that answer, the way that you chose the particular kinds of aesthetic elements to
interpret the stories that — the narratives that you’ve shared with us. And then, Carla, with your work, you talked
about photography and the science of photography, in particular, to shed light on familial narratives.
And then in that last blurry shot — because I was — I couldn’t figure out when I looked
at it — I mean, every time I’m like, “Okay, I don’t have my glasses on, what’s going on?”
And — but when I looked at it, I wondered why it was blurry, not just because of we
know how hard it is to take pictures in museums, but there was something really, I think, even
more intentional in that because you could’ve gotten a clear shot if you wanted to, we all
know that. Carla Williams:
It’s too small, I couldn’t take it. [laughter] Cheryl Finley:
Yeah, and I think part of the question, too, when I say “memory,” I think I want to kind
of say writ large, I think I might be talking also about history or historical memory, and
we could maybe even bring that back to what the project is here at hand for us today in
this panel. So that’s my one big question. Johnnetta Cole:
Briefly. I — go ahead. Keith Obadike:
I think with our project, I mean, part of what we were looking at and part of what we
were inspired by was this kind of dance between whatever the current science said about, let’s
say, the Hemings family, as that brushed against sort of the Hemings family’s own stories about
who they were, and how that got adjusted sort of every few years based on whatever story
showed up in the media, what, you know, whatever films were made about this controversy. And
we were also kind of interested in how these very popular sources, I say about Oprah or
Watson, how these things might show up later, 20 years from now, 30 years from now. So we’re
kind of interested in this larger public memory about these really important people. Mendi Obadike:
I would also say that, in general, I think part of our job as artists is to add value,
and I think when you asked the question about memory, I think, well, you know one of the
things that we want to do is add value to memory, to the memory of our experience as
black people, as Americans, as humans, you know. So our work rubs up against other things,
it, you know, things we imagine, things we imagine in the future, things we imagine in
parallel universes, and also memories. Carla Williams:
In my work, I think I’m always — and I mentioned it in my presentation — I’m always a little
bit confounded by this notion that people look at photographs and they associate them
with memories, because I think, in reality, very infrequently do we photograph the things
that we remember. They’re generally two separate — two separate things. For me, though, what’s
— and so when I look at family photographs or I use family photographs, I’m aware of
narratives that have been told to me or in which I participated, I just take them as
fiction because they change every year, or they, you know, they change by the teller.
But the more significant thing for me is the collective memory that my work often triggers,
especially the “all the women in my family” piece. The responses I generally get are,
“That could be my family,” or, “I should do this with my family,” so that the specificity
of any one memory is subordinate to the way in which photographs, and I guess, in that
instance, a certain presentation of photographs, will prompt people to go somewhere else, to
go someplace beyond, you know, those likenesses. Johnnetta Cole:
Mendi, I think you had a question that you might want to ask of a photographer. [laughter] Mendi Obadike:
Yes. So one of our questions was about the idea of photography. You know, you had said
in our earlier conversation that you were going to show work about family photographs,
and I think our initial response was about — well, I thought, and I think Keith also
thought, oh, okay, so genetics, family photographs, we’re going to see the face, you know, and
think about — we’re going to see the relationship in the face. But it’s interesting, like, looking
at these photographs and also thinking about what photography does, and also thinking about
all the things that the genetic code can express. In our conversation, we began to think a lot
about what else happens in a photograph, and then looking at these photographs, it seems
like it’s trying to say there’s more than the surface here. Do you think about the relationship between
the photograph and the interior, or the photograph and that which is not generally thought of
as visual? Carla Williams:
I do, and in fact — but that’s also something I can’t make up my mind about, because I think
I, as a photo historian, I know better. I think they’re just pieces of paper. But, you
know, as a creative person, I refuse to let go of the idea that I can read something into
a picture that can’t — that’s undeniable. And I think a lot of people do that. We do
that on a daily basis. So she looks happy, he looks angry, he looks sad. And we do it
— we just — we do it automatically. And so I still sit with that because I know that
everyone does it, and so I know that’s how photographs communicate, even though, objectively,
you know, they’re just split-second chemical renderings of something that, you know, have
a whole lot of choices made to get to that point. So, yeah, I think — and I think you can’t
— without that photography doesn’t really exist. It’s — I think that’s what we bring
to it, is what we project onto it. What it looks like is, you know, inconsequential ultimately. Johnnetta Cole:
Cheryl, did you want to weigh in on that? Cheryl Finley:
Well, I was just going to add kind of to the end of what you’re saying. It’s because what
we project onto it and how they help us to tell stories, right, to create narratives,
and if you talk about that, the really wonderful large piece that you ended with, it’s a self-portrait,
right? It’s meant to be a self-portrait, but it’s a series of I don’t know how many portraits
of people whom, for you, make up who you are, and so it’s that very large tableau of a narrative
that we can tell with a series of photographs. And, I mean, we could talk about even — and
what I love about how you show those images of your one self, right, is that they’re there,
and as the viewer, one can choose to go in in a number of different places, right? But
if those images were in, say, a book, it would be a completely different narrative, because
they would be — you would sequence them for us, because you’re very decisive, right? Carla Williams:
Yeah. Cheryl Finley:
And so we would have to read them in that way, whatever that way would be. Carla Williams:
And it’s true, the way that piece gets installed is that wherever I send it, all the pictures
just go in an envelope, and wherever I send it, they can make their own stacks. They just
have to keep my same holes, because that will deteriorate really quickly, but that’s the
only — that’s their only rule. Yeah. Johnnetta Cole:
You know, I think we’ve got to share the time, and given that it is a matter of a few minutes
before we must end, why don’t we open up and say to our folk who have been so good to hang
here all day long — [laughter] [Spanish] You have the floor. And so if there
is a question or two, we’d love to hear them. Linda Heywood:
Yeah, well, again, you know, since I use so much photographs, and I try to get anything
on the web that I can to share it with my students, one of the things that I’ve done
since I was at Howard was, in fact, began collecting photographs, family photographs.
And my grandmother stands really big because I grew up with her, and she died at 90-something,
95. And she had this really fascinating sort of background, whether they taught that she
was — at least I grew up hearing that she was Carib, then I find out it’s really not
Carib, it’s really the Fulani and why [spelled phonetically]. So one of the things that I’m trying to shape
this, so that I remember taking out the picture of my grandmother that she was, you know,
going through dementia at the time, and I had moved from Grenada to Trinidad, and I
remember going back, and I was just, you know, in my late teens, early 20s, and I remember
when I went to her, she couldn’t — she seemed to recognize me, but couldn’t articulate it.
And she touched my face and then pointed, because I know I went back to Trinidad to
go to high school, and I think she was remembering that. Anyhow, I captured that picture. Recently, I sent that picture — a cousin
of mine got a hold of the picture, and he — in the email, series of emails, it said,
like, “Linda took this picture.” And I got this really angry note from him through the
family circuit saying, “You never took that picture, I took that picture when I was a
teen.” And we got into this kind of a family kind of ownership of Gran, and it was kind
of — I didn’t know how to really deal with it, so I said, “I’m not going to even send
back an email to him,” because I didn’t want to get into an argument. And it was a cousin
who then reaffirmed that, yes, Linda did take that picture. He hasn’t responded. So I’m saying, did you have any sort of tension
with — you mentioned about not — you know, some that your mother didn’t want to share
that — first of all, I was very fascinated by that you were able to get all of these
and made what you did out of it. Carla Williams:
It took many years to get them all. My mother gave them up first, my grandmother last. No
tension from that; the only tension I ever got from family was how I represented them
in the photographs I took. They never thought they were flattering enough. [laughter] But never what I did with their — with the
existing pictures. Johnnetta Cole:
Can we come to this side, please? Male Speaker:
I’ve enjoyed this. And my question to you is, as you’ve listened today to the various
panels and the conversation that’s gone on today, how do you see some of the conversation
from the scientists and from the anthropologists that came before you today may influence some
of your future work? Johnnetta Cole:
Excellent question. Male Speaker:
Or not. [laughter] Carla Williams:
I have to say, and the scientists probably won’t appreciate this, but I sat in the audience
thinking, for scientists, they certainly don’t have all the answers, you know. And I think
coming from the arts, you’re sort of — you’re led to believe that, you know, you’re the
soft disciplines in the academy, and, you know, there’s nothing conclusive, and you’re
totally happy sitting with that. But it was really reassuring to me to sort of watch scientist
after scientist to present inconclusive evidence, but — from my perspective, I mean, they may
have different perspectives on their work. And so it — for me, the takeaway is that
I’m not wrong in thinking there’s not a whole lot of difference between science and art.
Just — you just apply — you apply your knowledge differently. Keith Obadike:
I think for us, I mean, we were really sort of inspired by how ambiguous some of the science
was, or how inconclusive it was. I mean, you know, artists, we thrive in ambiguity. You
know, it’s like when all the answers aren’t there, you know. Mendi Obadike:
So we can really generate some. Keith Obadike:
So, you know, in that way the kind of early stages that the work is in is really energizing
for us. You know, we don’t know how you feel about it as scientists, but for us, you know,
it’s a goldmine. [laughs] Mendi Obadike:
I would also say that we do a lot of talking about narratives, a lot of our projects are
about the kinds of narratives we have about — specifically about American history, and
so in this project, we’re getting to narratives around science. But a lot of our research
had been around the things that we had read that had been interpreted by other people,
and it’s really interesting to see the place that narrative has in the discussion of what’s
happening scientifically. I mean, people talked about narratives today. And that — I didn’t
realize that that was going to happen; I thought that was what people from outside fields were
bringing to the science. And so it’s interesting to me to see the way that that works. So I
don’t know if that is going to have a different relationship at all. I think it’s going to,
you know, contribute to the same kind of working relationship that we had. Cheryl Finley:
And I would echo that in saying that I like the way that some of those narratives that
were based initially, perhaps, purely on science, that they needed a little bit of help from
history, or perhaps from art, to finally come to a particular place where if it’s doing
a DNA search or trying to help someone find their roots, that, in the end, it’s going
to be a little bit of science, it’s going to be a little bit of history, it’s going
to be a little bit of soul searching, a little bit of physically, you know, maybe getting
on a plane or on a boat and going somewhere to actually, you know, touch the soil, or
meet someone, or really make the connection that it may not just be one, you know, science
or art, but that it’s going to be the union, I think. And that’s — if I’m visually visualizing
the cover, or rather the artwork of the program, it’s kind of that plus, right, that it’s going
to be ancestry plus culture, plus science, plus art, plus history. So, yeah. Johnnetta Cole:
We can take only one more question. Female Speaker:
I’ll be brief. I’ll be very brief. I want to thank you all for the presentation; it
has been a great eye-opener for me. What I think you have a responsibility is to continue
to have people begin to think out of the box, have people begin to think how art relates
to everything. They’ve changed the core now for reading, and want our kids to start thinking.
You can develop any kind of questions at the higher levels that you want, especially the
analysis of different pictures, you can tie in science, you can tie in art, music, with
anything that you do, and I would suggest that you try to come up with ways that you
can make the schools aware of how beneficial your art is to every avenue that they need
to learn, writing, all of it. Johnnetta Cole:
Well, I want to thank you, as a museum director, for making that point. [laughter] And I want to bring closure now, because we
must, out of respect for the last panel, by creating two images. One is what we think
about when we keep hearing over and over and over and over again about STEM. And we certainly
want to put all of our force behind this notion of science, technology, engineering, mathematics,
or as we’ve added here in this symposium, certainly genetics. But we also have to keep
an image of STEAM. We got to get the A in there, and STEAM, it seems to me, throughout
today and certainly with this extraordinarily gifted panel, tells us that there’s some motion
there. There’s some power in art to push science where we need to go. Would you thank this panel? [applause]

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