Who Among Us… The Art of Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle
March 1, 2016
In the early decades of photography, many Europeans and European Americans employed the nascent technology in conquered lands across the planet to document colonial subjects. These images became historical records, though they were often inscribed with colonial fantasies—subjects were presented as dwelling in prehistory or dressed in attire from cultures that were not their own. This approach to both ethnography and tourism has been widely critiqued, but the resulting documents persist, as do the worldviews built upon them.
Interdisciplinary artist Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle uses reproductions of these antique photographs as sources for one of three bodies of work in Who Among Us… The Art of Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle at the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) in San Francisco. The Uninvited Series displays over a dozen black-and-white and sepia-tone photographs of African women on a single wall, each of which Hinkle has reclaimed with ink, paint, glitter, gouache, and collage.
Some of the pieces are kaleidoscopic interventions that adorn the figures with ornate headdresses, body armor, or auras. In The Transfiguration (2015), for example, the portrait of a woman is mostly obscured by a sea of pink protozoan blobs and a web of intricate ink drawings that wrap around her chin and protrude from her forehead. Hinkle gives the woman a regal and fantastical headdress and the power it connotes—if only retroactively, imaginatively. In The Huntress (2014), a woman wearing a barely perceptible smile faces the viewer. Spirals of ink radiate from one of her eyes, creating a mask that covers half of her face, stretching upward and outward. The mouth of a roaring tiger cut from a photograph rests between the woman’s bare breasts. The tiger’s defiant roar seems to represent emotions concealed by the subject’s sardonic smile—emotions she may not have been at liberty to display to the photographer.
Hinkle denies these photographs their original functions—to propagate a specific narrative, worldview, or ethic—and in so doing, assists viewers in imagining these women as more than colonial subjects or anthropological specimens. Her abstract interventions permit the mind to wander and explore one’s own associations with the work.
Hinkle’s The Tituba Series comprises several large drawings based on the story of Tituba, an enslaved woman who was among the first accused of practicing witchcraft in colonial Salem. The black-and-white drawings—composed mainly with ink, charcoal, and pastel—are more mysterious than the whimsical, appropriated photographs from The Uninvited Series, and even sinister. Now There Are Three Different Ways to Get This Done: Your Way, Their Way, or My Way (2014), for example, pictures a figure with two heads, three faces, and any number of breasts emerging from a devilish tornado of ink and paint. In Tituba Becomes the Night (2014), a woman materializes out of a black mist. She possesses a single piercing eye in place of her mouth and more than a dozen eyes where there are normally just two. Like Medusa, long black forms snake from her scalp. These figures, and others in the series, appear powerful and in control; they are more evocative of goddesses than witches. These representations underscore the complexities of the historic Tituba, who was fearsome in her confessed conspiring with the devil yet the victim of a Puritan mob, escaped the witch hunt with her life, and has become something of a mythical character in her own right.
The final series in the exhibition, The Kentifrica Project, presents artifacts from the Kentifrican Museum of Culture, which Hinkle describes as conceptual museum dedicated to an imagined continent that is contested and uncolonized. Musical instruments, attire, and ceremonial objects from some of Kentifrica’s many cultures are on display at MoAD. The number of objects is limited due to the small exhibition space, which left me eager to see what picture of Kentifrica could be projected with a more expansive exhibition as Hinkle has mounted at other contemporary art spaces. Nonetheless, I was drawn to the exhibition’s description of the continent as “both a physical and theoretical space,” a place that many people do not know exists or refuse to acknowledge. Kentifrica seems to be a metaphor for African history and the many cultures resulting from its diasporas, which are so often marginalized, ignored, or forcefully erased.
This installation provides a lens through which to look at all the works in Who Among Us…, causing me to reexamine them as more than appropriation and fantasy. Ultimately, I came to see the entire exhibition as Kentifrica—not just an imaginary place, but a dream, a revision, or a projection of a continent that could have been or that still may become.