The Origin of the Blues

An Interview with Artist Ariel Jackson

Ariel Jackson lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. After earning her BFA from the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York 2013, she participated in the Bruce High Quality Foundation University’s Summer Emerging Artist Residency Program in 2015 and as a Van Lier Fellow in the Visual Arts Program at Wave Hill in New York 2016. Jackson’s work has been shown at the Studio Museum in Harlem, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Bronx Museum, and Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. She uses video, animation, performance, and sculpture to explore historical memory and cultural identity.

She creates alternate dimensions, narratives, and characters to unpack the larger systemic issues and traumas that have formed her experience as a Black woman and the experiences of other people of color in the United States. Her work follows in the Afrofuturist tradition, a movement that combines science fiction, fantasy, and Afrocentric references to develop empowered, otherworldly narratives. In The Origin of the Blues (2015), Jackson’s alter ego—Confuserella—journeys from the fictional world of Panfrika to Plastica to study the history, conditions, and beginnings of blues music. Jackson juxtaposes archival footage of racially oriented violence with images from everyday Black life to further reveal the unsettling coexistence of the brutal and the mundane in Black communities.

Amber Lopez: Can we start our conversation by discussing the role of Afrofuturism in your work? What are you specifically looking to question—or answer—by creating this alternate universe? What do Panfrika and Plastica look like? And can you tell us a little about Confuserella and her role?

Ariel Jackson: It’s important to note that the term Afrofuturism would not have been used by some of the fathers and mothers of this mode of thinking (e.g., Sun Ra and Octavia Butler). Therefore I do not think of my work in relation to “Afrofuturism” the term but rather the tradition that has existed before Mark Dery coined the term in his 1993 essay “Black to the Future.” In it he asks Samuel Delaney and Greg Tate why the African American community doesn’t make more use of science fiction. Tate responds by saying, “Well, if you look at the Black writing that’s been done in this century, from Richard Wright on, there’s always been huge dollops of fantasy, horror, and science fiction in it. There are science fiction sequences in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, for example… . where the protagonist’s identity is scraped away in the basement of the paint factory. The whole intellectual landscape of the novel, which deals with the condition of being alien and alienated, speaks, in a sense, to the way in which being Black in America is a science fiction experience.”

It is here that I based my interest in the so-called Afrofuturist tradition. The Black American tradition of storytelling, where Black people are the protagonist—in my mind—is a fantastical and horrifying experience of loss and being lost and through that something else being found. What it is, to me, is the cliffhanger that holds my interest.

In regards to Panfrika and Plastica—they are allegorical terms to point out what is considered “home” to Confuserella, and “destination” (i.e., where she is traveling to for answers). Previous professors and colleagues have likened this to the narrative of the immigrant who seeks freedom within America to in fact find that there are more questions and hurdles. In particular to the African American experience I think about the migration from South to North—for me it is my own experience of migrating from Louisiana to New York City.

Confuserella is a representation of my psyche during my transition from New Orleans to New York City, where I experienced, for the first time, progressive racism—microaggression towards people of color in spaces and conversations disguised as liberal progressiveness. I found myself struggling to speak about my experience because I didn’t have the words for it. Then I came across Sun Ra and underground groups of Black thought that ultimately inspired the development of Confuserella—in a similar way to how Herman Poole Blount developed Sun Ra in response to navigating segregation as a musician.

AL: Would you please tell us about the blues and its double meaning here, including the conditions that spring the blues?

AJ: The blues originally developed as part of Confuserella’s narrative—primarily as the antagonist. Confuserella seeks to turn the blues down to allow time to think and come up with answers. Over the years I’ve been challenged to offer a concrete idea of what the blues are within my narratives. I push against the history of the blues being restricted to just a musical genre and look for ways that the blues can speak to the psyche. During a studio visit with Cauleen Smith, she challenged that the blues is not just a sad emotion but also a happy one. I’ve been meditating about the notion of being happy and sad at once and have been recognizing moments especially as I’ve been learning about the gain and loss of my family’s farmland (see Pete Daniel’s Dispossession: Discrimination Against African American Farmers in the Age of Civil Rights) through my recent body of work The Blues Data Crop: The Gains and Loss of Black Farmers in America. So I turned to Amiri Baraka’s The Blues People, where he contextualizes the development of the blues within the Black American experience.

AL: What works were you looking at and listening to as you put Origin of the Blues together, and what was your decision-making process in what images or audio clips made it into this piece? How was editing a creative act here? Where did you source your images?

AJ: In pre-production I collected many songs and footage so I could feel my way through the relationships between audio and image. In writing Confuserella’s monologue there are points where I imagine she is speaking to a reality we are familiar with, although in her abstract terms. For example she says, “It gets hard when the blues are playing every day,” after which we see and hear a mother trying to make sense of the death of her child. I think it’s here that we have a better idea of what the blues are.

At the time I was watching and sourcing from the 1968 CBS News Special Black History: Lost, Stolen, or Strayed, hosted by Bill Cosby. I wanted to use footage that had an archival feel to it for the representation of Panfrika. In addition I was looking at police brutality videos of Black and white people on YouTube while listening to a playlist of ’60s and ’70s music. Historically speaking, the ’60s and ’70s was a major shift in Black identity, with the development of the Civil Rights movement followed by the Black Power movement. I think music tends to reflect the emotional landscape of its time and so I go back and forth between Sun Ra’s 1978 “Lanquidity” and Cortex’s “Huit Octobre 1971.”

AL: What’s the significance of the pyramid? Of breathing, and the act of opening and closing?

The pyramid has multiple meanings stemming from different histories. In terms of African Americans, the pyramid is the hallmark symbol of Black invention and creativity and therefore greatness in Black American ancestry. Also the pyramid was used by ancient Egyptians as a tomb. Based on these meanings, the pyramid can be seen as a combination of life and death. Life for African Americans searching for their history, and death in the literal sense according to how ancient Egyptians used them. The breathing is an extension of the meaning behind the pyramid and the opening of the pyramid is a motion similar to yoga or the practice of mindful breathing.

AL: This was a collaboration with Godfrey Hibbert. How did that process take form as you made this piece?

AJ: I knew exactly what I wanted when I designed and directed Hibbert to generate the 3-dimensional pyramid. Moving forward I would like to create my own 3-D shapes. Having a professional generate what I’m envisioning helped me to understand how the 3-D shape functions in the work. In this case I think the 3-D shape functions as a focus point for the viewer to move through the images while listening to audio/music.

AL: Your work is highly personal and involves the presentation of trauma. Can you speak a bit about how your work has been received?

AJ: This work in particular has received a lot of positive attention—more than I would expect. The varied responses I’ve gotten are in conversations about my practice in general, in terms of using trauma as material to interrogate and explore. I’ve gotten negative responses suggesting that I am re-creating trauma in order to traumatize the audience (myself included). Perhaps this is true to a certain extent but I also feel that by avoiding conversations around trauma the opportunity to heal is unable to present itself.

AL: At that last segment of this work, a little boy is asked if he’s willing to wait until next week. This feels reminiscent of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which he wrote, “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’” What was your thinking in ending Origin of the Blues on this note?

AJ: The act of waiting has been a painful response to the seemingly neverending struggle of Black Americans seeking freedom from white supremacy. I wanted to end the video on this note to function as a final stand against the idea of having to wait for freedom. I like to think of it as a kind of cliffhanger—the young boy will one day be a man and the hope in the video is that he carries this resistance with him. There is something sad about this taking place in the late ’60s in comparison with where we are today in terms of “waiting.” It’s a little sad because in a lot of ways we’re in the same place but the resistance is still there.

Amber Lopez

Nancy Prophet fellow