John Edmonds and the Complex Role of the African Art Object
In 2019, the Brooklyn-based photographer John Edmonds was awarded the Brooklyn Museum’s inaugural UOVO Prize. The annual accolade, which is awarded to an emerging Brooklyn-based artist, serves as a collaboration between the Museum and the New York art storage facility, UOVO. Winners are granted a public installation on the facade of UOVO: Brooklyn, as well as a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum. Edmonds’ resulting exhibition, “A Sidelong Glance,” opened on October 23, 2020. Drawing inspiration from an essay by the same name, written by the art historian Krista Thompson, the exhibition juxtaposes African art objects with Black subjects, initiating a dialogue about how such artifacts challenge our understanding of the Western art canon, its institutions, and the Diaspora. This March, Edmonds was awarded the Foam Paul Huf Award, and is at work preparing for an upcoming solo show at the Amsterdam gallery. Below, Edmonds discusses “A Sidelong Glance,” the role of natural hair in his work, and why Blackness is not a monolith.
JULIANA UKIOMOGBE: Hi, John. I know we featured you back in 2019, so welcome back.
JOHN EDMONDS: Thank you!
UKIOMOGBE: In that story, we ran the image of “Two Spirits,” which is also included in your Brooklyn Museum exhibition. Regarding that image, you said: “Many masks and objects have been taken out of their original context and history, and as an African American, I’m interested in handling that.” Is “A Sidelong Glance” the product of that investigation?
EDMONDS: This exhibition is me parsing out the relationship between the Black human subject and the African art object. I’m parsing out 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 the art historian Krista Thompson? I read a bit about how her essay [“A Sidelong Glance: The Practice of African Diaspora Art History in the United States”] inspired you.
EDMONDS: Firstly, the title can be taken literally: I’m looking at the African art object, the role of the museum, and that ongoing dialogue with a level of suspicion. “A Sidelong Glance” is a look at something with a level of inquisition. Krista Thompson’s essay is about the ways that African art and diasporic histories have been framed in the West. Since we’re in the West, I’m acknowledging that in the show and in the show title.
UKIOMOGBE: When did you begin curating the show?
EDMONDS: The curatorial process began sometime in 2019. Every show is an ongoing process in terms of how certain works change with context. This is something that you can see throughout “A Sidelong Glance.” You can also very clearly see the importance of the juxtaposition of the Black human subject and the African art object. In retrospect, the curatorial process started with me photographing Ralph Ellison’s African art objects that are housed in the [Brooklyn] Museum. I wanted to look at this collection because it’s been housed in the museum for quite 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 that has, so it’s a great honor.
UKIOMOGBE: What is it about masks that inspires you?
EDMONDS: I’m interested in their formal beauty. The woodcarving that you see throughout the show is very much tied to specific cultures, especially in West Africa where many of the objects are from. The formal beauty and the actual technique in the craft are very striking to me. I wanted to look at that closely in my documentation of these objects.
UKIOMOGBE: Do you collect African art yourself?
EDMONDS: Yes, I do. I have my own small collection that began in 2018. Collecting African art objects isn’t something that I view as separate from my art practice. It’s all within the scope of my life’s work, which is to use photography to reaffirm these histories.
UKIOMOGBE: For you, what do these objects represent?
EDMONDS: So many different things. That’s something that “A Sidelong Glance” is really successful at exploring. The way that African art has typically been shown and displayed within museums is in a “high-art” way. But, many of the objects in the show are utilitarian and are used on a day-to-day basis. In many ways, I’m interested in that lived experience, which means I’m also creating a certain level of interrogation of these objects. There’s no monolithic way to look at African art, in the same way that there’s no monolithic way to look at Black people, in the same way that there’s no monolithic way to talk about the Black experience. That’s what the show is very insistent in conveying.
UKIOMOGBE: I want to talk about hair for a minute. In most of the portraits, your subjects are wearing their natural hair, either in finger waves, dreads, or underneath a durag. Was this intentional on your part?
EDMONDS: I am very inspired by hair politics, but in most of my work, I’m interested in my subjects coming as they are. I’m interested in the ordinary beauty of the Black human subject. Hair is an important aspect in many of the pictures, but there is a range of hairstyles and in how people present themselves. I’m not interested in making them someone that they are not.
UKIOMOGBE: In terms of the physical space of the exhibit, did you have a say in where certain photos were placed in the room?
EDMONDS: Absolutely. I worked very closely with the curators to create the pacing of the show that’s rooted in both looking back and looking forward. The show takes into account the evolution of African art through visual culture, specifically within the histories of photography and art. There are not many stories, but there are many histories that are being brought to the fore.
UKIOMOGBE: Do you have a favorite photo in the show?
EDMONDS: I don’t have a favorite, but there is one image that’s very important in the exhibition. It’s “Anatolli & Collection.” This is very important work because it’s very emblematic of what I, as a maker, have been doing for several years. I collect these objects and look at them with a certain level of discernment and inquisition.
UKIOMOGBE: How do you come up with the titles for each work? Do you have a process?
EDMONDS: Since so much of this work is about a scholarly approach, the titles are objective. They’re direct observations. Sometimes the still lifes and the sculptures are titled indexically in order to clearly distinguish this idea of archive building. All of these pictures exist in a single archive. Throughout time, the meaning may change, but it’s anchored in a specific context.
UKIOMOGBE: Where did you shoot these images?
EDMONDS: In many different places. I use a makeshift studio, both within the museum and my own living space. I’m interested in photography’s role in carving out space. This is something that is very potent within the exhibition. It’s this idea that work can happen anywhere. Work is not something that’s married to one space or place. In the last room of the exhibition, there is a photograph titled “Marion & Yaure Mask” that was made in the Beaux-Arts Court. Studio work and practice don’t have to be married to the studio. I look at “A Sidelong Glance” as an opportunity to open all of these different doors of interpretation instead of the limitations that are often imposed on conversations around Blackness and diasporas.
UKIOMOGBE: Can you speak a bit more about those limitations?
EDMONDS: I’m not talking about the limitations on Black artists, though there are many, but more about the limitations of how Blackness is described, seen, and felt. Often, the audience engages with the surface of the work. My show is very insistent in asking the audience to engage with the subject beyond what meets the eye. That’s why context is so important.
UKIOMOGBE: How has the pandemic altered the way that you work?
EDMONDS: It has really interrupted the way that I use my time. I don’t think that it has really changed my interests so much. In many ways, it’s actually deepened my interests.
UKIOMOGBE: Is there a message that 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. This is something that we cannot get away from. The past has to be dealt with. We have to look at our past in order to understand our present and in order to move forward to a more just and equitable future. At the heart of all of my work, there is a love and an affinity for the subject. I don’t mean this in a romantic way, even though sometimes romance is a part of that, but I mean this in the sense that love comes with looking deeper and beyond.
“A Sidelong Glance” is on view at Brooklyn Museum until September 26, 2021.