The Unmooring of Jibade-Khalil Huffman

Endurance Tests

The Unmooring of Jibade-Khalil Huffman

By Anna Martine Whitehead April 16, 2015

“Endurance Tests” is an irregular column on current explorations of representation, the ethereal, and compulsiveness by black artists working in the field of performance. Across profiles and interviews, the column takes seriously the proposition of performance as a repeatable and assimilable text. “Endurance Tests” will examine contemporary performance-makers actively syncretizing the many implications of "blackness": illegality, contagion, maladaptivity, and a privileged relationship to cool.


I conducted a series of interviews with artists during the 2014 Made in L.A. Biennial at the Hammer Museum. Quotes in this article are from my July 13, 2014 conversation with the artist Jibade-Khalil Huffman. We met in the Echo Park apartment he shares with Public Fiction founder and curator Lauren Mackler. A true pleasure to talk with, Huffman shared his coming-of-age story and talked about poetry, opportunity, and effort over tea while kids played outside.

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In her pivotal essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” Audre Lorde writes of the “places of possibility within ourselves [which] are dark because they are ancient and hidden.”1 She demands we consider the radical and formative potential of “poetry as illumination.” For artist Jibade-Khalil Huffman, too, poetry is no luxury; it is a means to disentangle language from ontology, assembling new compositions suggestive of other ways of being. In Huffman’s video and slideshow-based installations, everything is subject to deconstruction—from subtitles to karaoke to slide presentations—making the viewer aware of their agency in forming meaning out of words, light, and composition. 

Huffman’s interest in the expansiveness of language extends across mediums and genres, its trajectory following those traced by poets such as Lorde and Claudia Rankine. In fact, Huffman has been collaborating with the latter poet for an upcoming show at Mars Gallery. In Huffman’s poetry, words are collaged into combinations of sentences and delivered to the reader as fragments. In James Brown Is Dead and Other Poems, for example, the passage, “an awkward/silence by/DW Griffith,” is followed by a series of blank pages, an image of the Warner Bros. Pictures logo, and more blank pages.2 This collage of linguistic snippets and yawning gaps of silence creates a feeling of being perpetually unmoored. The uncertainty opened up by Huffman’s poetry also generates a space for him to address the cognitive dissonances that come with being an artist of color in a predominantly white art world. “In some ways I don’t deal in big subjects… I’m thinking of Race with a capital “R”—certainly that stuff slips in. But it’s embedded in a life. And that’s what I’m interested in,” he says. “The main thing is thinking through modes of text that already exist and employing poetry to deal with absurdity. Instead of writing an essay about misreading and how, for example, whenever I see an ‘applause’ sign I always see ‘applesauce’—there’s no word for this misreading. I just wanted to make a piece that shows this.”

Jibade-Khalil Huffman. Untitled (Cake), 2015. Archival inkjet print, 8 x 10 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

With Sculpture for Jeffrey Tambor (2012), Huffman did just that, placing above a theater door the word “APPLESAUCE” in dark letters across an off-yellow light box. Its form is an obvious reference to the flashing “APPLAUSE” sign one would find hanging over a stage for a live studio audience. When I encountered the piece, I reflexively moved to clap before realizing which word I had read, a realization that quickly turned into confusion over what to do next. This example is telling of Huffman’s use of objects as well as words to explore the interplay and exchange between various ways of knowing. In his art, intellectual processes invariably come up against sensory experience, with the resulting confusions raising more troubling questions about historical memory. As Nikki Darling writes of Huffman’s work, “This is a rejection of letting words do their job.”3

“Most of my projects function by using the subtitle as a form of translation,” says Huffman. “In general, I’m thinking about a form of text that we’re used to seeing over and over again—and then something else gets plugged into it. I love the idea of a film where the thing that is translated is not the thing we understand on the screen.” 

"I’m thinking about a form of text that we’re used to seeing over and over again"

That what we see is not—and perhaps should not—necessarily be what we get, which could describe Huffman’s life as a former scholarship kid in Detroit who grew up writing raps. “I never tried to rap,” Huffman explains. “I wasn’t aware of spoken word—but I saw I could write this kind of poetry. I’ve been writing poetry since I was twelve. There was this girl… and that’s when it started.” So Huffman applied for some scholarships and got into Bard, where he studied with luminaries such as John Ashbery and Ann Lauterbach. From there he went directly into an MFA in Writing at Brown University, working closely with experimental writer Thalia Field. Throughout his education, Huffman developed an interest in filmmaking and photography, and while at Brown he attempted to access the RISD photo labs. There was a problem with his keycard, however, and he was turned away—an experience Huffman says directly affected his practice.

“I didn’t have a darkroom and was longing to make pictures. I was still shooting with film [a practice Huffman continues to this day]. So I thought of slides. It was amazing. I could make these pictures, process them, and they’re done. And that very quickly became about projection and space; it became sculptural. The idea of ‘nostalgia’ and all the other connotations that come with projectors is something I’m always fighting against. I try to sort of reimagine what film can be and do. If you’re thinking about a film being sort of flat, within that flat plane there’s all sorts of characters, sounds, stories. But it’s still a flat plane.”

Jibade-Khalil Huffman and Anthony Pearson. Third Person, installation view. Marianne Boesky East, New York City, 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Marianne Boesky East, New York.

Huffman continued to explore the sculptural potential of images with an installation at the Hammer Museum’s 2014 biennial, Made in L.A. In The Forms of Love (2013), five projectors at varying levels and facing the same corner rotate their carousels at different speeds. On another wall is projected Huffman’s Lake Overturn (2013), a subtitled film with a loose narrative about a location scout. The soundtrack for Lake Overturn evokes an indie summer road-trip movie, while the projectors from The Forms of Love beat out their own pulsing and uneven rhythm. Whether viewing the installation from the front of the room or from between the multiple projections, the Hammer installation produced a sense of abundant fragments as the space exploded with text, image, light, and sound—what Huffman calls “an attempt to make a kind of literature, a schematic with dimensions.”

"A big part of my work is experimentation and the abstraction that comes from that."

The familiarity of Huffman’s choice of images (a potted plant in sharp focus and pale light; a possible therapist and client interaction in an office) paired with non-sequitur subtitles reproduces that unmoored feeling so central to the experience of his art. Just as a recognizable image appears, another seemingly unrelated image is projected on top of it, disrupting meaning moment by moment. The images create a dialogue with each other that viewers are left to interpret using the subtitles as a kind of translation, one that is always already in a process of losing the thing it means to describe.

To be lost in translation is not necessarily a bad thing. The looseness of language—its inability to stay fixed and the inaccuracies that result—also engenders possibility. Case in point: Huffman was inspired by a recent trip to Marfa, Texas, where he saw Carl Andre’s poem–drawings at the Chinanti Foundation. Huffman recognized in Andre’s pieces the potential of words to both reference meaning through language and to make meaning through shape and form. “My desire in the making of all these kinds of works, which I call poetry, is to create an experience which is more than just a sense of indeterminacy.” For Huffman, “It actually comes out of reading certain texts and thinking, ‘This is amazing, what this is doing.’ Limitations are great—that this poem starts as writing and not as singing, for example. So a big part of my work is experimentation and the abstraction that comes from that.”

Jibade-Khalil Huffman, A Paramount Picture, 1, installation view.  Courtesy of the artist.

Understandably, then, Huffman—an artist whose limitations at one point led to “access to a certain kind of education and opportunities, ridiculous opportunities” and who stands out in the contemporary L.A. arts landscape as an emerging black artist—is frustrated by limitations that stifle rather than generate possibility. When we met to talk last year, Huffman told me outright that he wasn’t feeling seen by L.A. critics and curators, an experience of being made invisible he said is shared among black artists in L.A. “I was feeling like no one was checking in on me … I was ready to bitch about how no one in L.A. is showing black artists except for Susanne Vielmetter [Los Angeles Projects]… At the same time, I’m thinking of those kids who come out of whatever neighborhood and aren’t going to get to go to Bard or get an MFA but could be the next big thing. I think about these two poles and I wonder where I am, and what do I do from here. I want to curate a show that’s all women of color and probably one guy—probably twenty artists—and to have that dynamic never be addressed, to make it visible.” Huffman’s work continuously comes back to this dynamic: How can the act of not describing a thing make it more apparent?

In his own words, Huffman desires to “make a thing in the best form for it,” and it is perhaps this sensibility that drives him to envision such a curatorial project as an extension of his craft—conceived in totality as “poetry.” “Poetry,” writes Lorde, “is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.”4 But does naming fix ideas in time and space, or does it allow for movement and ephemerality, the agency to choose visibility or not? For Huffman, poetry is a means to shape-shift and mistranslate, reforming meaning by first dissolving it. His art does the critical work of questioning the names that have already been given, by finding and losing their purpose, over and over again, in translation. 

Huffman’s second book of poetry, Sleeper Hold, was released by Fence Books on April 7. His show with poet Claudia Rankine opens on May 2 at Mars Gallery.

Notes

  1. Audre Lorde, “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” Chrysalis: A Magazine of Female Culture 3 (1977).
  2. Jibade-Khalil Huffman, James Brown Is Dead and Other Poems (Houston: Future Plan and Program, 2011).
  3. Nikki Darling, “The Ephemeral Texts of Jibade-Khalil Huffman,” KCET Artbound, September 6, 2013, http://www.kcet.org/arts/artbound/counties/los-angeles/jibade-khalil-huffman.html.
  4. Lorde.

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